Tag Archives: Tet ’68

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

The Day The World Was on Line, and

Tom and I Got Into Another Argument

by: john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6802931a - Map of the 19 Feb (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alpha 6, this is Alpha 2-6. Over.”

“This is 6. Go ahead.” Tom replied.

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, Tom knew that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alpha 2-6, this is 6. Go ahead”.

“This is 2-6. Go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still don’t like banana trees much though.

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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

Numbers Can Be Deceptive

Numbers Can Be Deceptive

by: john harrison

When I originally enlisted in the Army it was for Warrant Officer Flight School at Ft. Rucker, Alabama. While I had to complete the flight school to actually become a warrant officer, I was guaranteed on enlisting that was where I would be sent. The only question remaining the recruiter explained when I enlisted was whether I would pass the flight physical. If I did that, it was on to Ft. Rucker right after AIT (Advanced Individual Training) he said. That all sounded good to me.

So, I filled out all of the enlistment forms. There were two complete sets, one for entry into the Army and another set for entry into the Warrant Officer Flight Program. There was only one question on all the forms that I did not know the answer to, my social security number. However, the forms showed how many numbers there were so I just filled in the blanks and then turned the forms in.

As everybody knows who has been in the service, even before basic training, it all starts with taking a bunch of tests. It turned out I did well on the officer aptitude test, so they offered me the chance of going to OCS (Officer Candidate School) instead of Warrant Officer Flight School.

I had a long discussion with the second lieutenant who was recruiting men for OCS about this. Ultimately, according to him, the Army promised that if I flunked out of OCS that I would immediately be sent to flight school at Ft. Rucker. With that assurance, I signed up for Infantry OCS at Ft. Benning, Ga. Again I filled out a whole bunch of new forms, then I was on the way to Benning’s school for boys. Right before commissioning we filled out two sets of forms since in effect all of us were leaving the Army as enlisted men and then immediately rejoining the Army as newly commissioned officers.

I passed OCS and after Jump School was assigned to the 3/506 (Abn) Infantry Regiment with the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Ky. The Commanding Officer of the 3/506th was an old war-horse on his third war named John P. Geraci.

We trained for six hard months in the states and then deployed to Vietnam as a unit. Like everybody in the unit I felt we were very lucky. We had John Geraci, later inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame, as the battalion commander, Tom Gaffney, working on his second war and like Geraci this would be his third tour in Vietnam, as our company commander, and Master Sergeant Theron “Bull” Gergen, also inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame, as the company’s First Sergeant. All three were tough, knowledgable, demanding warriors who took no prisoners.

JohnGeraciColonel

This is a picture of by then Col. Geraci after his helicopter had been shot down. He had landed in a hot LZ to pick up a wounded platoon leader. He earned that patch on his right shoulder leading us, the Currahees, 3/506th Airborne. The word tough defines the man.

In fact, Geraci relieved, Army speak for fired, one company commander and Gaffney relieved a platoon leader during training in the states. They both believed completely in the old adage that, sweat in training saved blood on the battlefield. We sweated a lot even before we got to Vietnam because for them, even really good excuses were never a sufficient reason for a failure to perform.

After a couple months in Vietnam we were on a resupply out in the field when I was told to come over to the single ship LZ (Landing Zone) in the center of the Alpha Company perimeter where I found Geraci and Gaffney waiting for me, not talking, looking very stern.

JEHBunnGaffneyGeraciMairs

Me; James Albert Bunn, (KIA) my platoon sergeant; John Geraci, CO 3/506th Abn Inf; Tom Gaffney CO Company A 3/506th Abn Inf; Bob Mairs S-3, 3/506th Abn Inf. This was an earlier meeting. Photo Jerry Berry

They sat there for a minute, both of them just looking at me. Then Gaffney passed me an inch thick sheaf of papers. You read Army documents from back to front so I turned immediately to the last page, then I had to turn forward four pages to where the first document in the stack began.

It was a memo from a full bird Colonel in St. Louis, directed by name to my commanding officer, Lt. Col. John P. Geraci, USA, Commanding Officer, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry (Abn.) Regiment. The memo did not start well:

“This officer, and I use the term loosely.  .  .”

And, it went down hill fast from there. I soon figured out that not only had I used different Social Security numbers each time I had filled out a set of forms, I had also often varied the numbers within each set of forms. In total I had filled out at least six sets of forms: first set, Army enlistment, second set a Warrant Officer flight candidate, third set Officer Candidate, fourth set ending service as an enlisted man, fifth set beginning service as a commissioned officer and a finally, a shorter set for Jump School. The Colonel did not say how many different Social Security numbers I had used because I gathered he was still not sure of the exact number.

The Army had recently changed from keeping track of its soldiers by their service number to keeping track by their Social Security number. Apparently as long as the Army had kept track of things by service number, my little fictions had caused no problems. However, when the Army switched to Social Security numbers there were no end to the problems.

All of the numbers I had used turned out to be real Social Security numbers for somebody and many of them were, or had been, in the Army. At least one of them was in the Marines too, but the Colonel seemed not to be as worried about him.

Among other things, there was a large, brand new, computer on an Army base near St. Louis, Mo., that had suddenly spewed out all sorts of numbers and forms. According to the Colonel, at great cost of time and money, the computer had been shut down completely as each number was traced—back to me.

Among other problems, there was that Marine. He was drawing jump pay, but had never been to jump school and on being assigned to a Marine airborne position had objected even though he was getting more money, probably particularly when they told him he had to exit an aircraft in flight. The Colonel had also spent some time looking for a nonexistent 78-year-old second lieutenant who, according to the paper work, had been commissioned twice.

The Colonel’s memo went on and on. I finally stopped reading and started to go through the documents on top of the original memo. The first was from another Colonel, also Adjutant General Corps, who pointed out in some detail that wars are not just won on the battlefield, but also by keeping careful, accurate records. He only went on for two pages talking mostly about me, but he was also very definite.

Then, the documents travelled up through all of the various Army and Joint Commands to CONUS, or Continental Army United States from whence it went CINCPAC (Commander in Chief Pacific Area Command) then to USARPAC (United States Army Pacific) and on to MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam). It actually went a lot of other places as well, and each commander, or his designee, had added their endorsement to the memo. By the time it got to me it was about an inch thick.

It was hot on the LZ, but that was not the reason for all the sweat pouring out of my body. I was stunned, speechless.

I glanced up—Geraci and Gaffney were still sitting there, still looking at me, stone-faced.

Then, Geraci laughed, not just a “Ha, ha, ha.  .  .” but real belly laughs, and Tom Gaffney joined him. There were tears in their eyes when they finally stopped laughing.

A week later the battles of Tet’68 started. No one ever mentioned that memo again, and strangely, it never made it into my 201 File.

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

by: john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We headed south from LZ Betty

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

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

Made by Samsung DVC

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

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

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

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

“2-6. What? Go.” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

I put the radio hand set back to my ear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Giap

The Tiger That Tried To Join The Platoon Formation

The Tiger That Tried To Join The Platoon Formation

by john harrison

A lot of Vietnam is simply gorgeous, breathtaking and gorgeous. It was early in the morning and not very hot yet. Alpha Company was walking in platoon column formations through an emerald green, vast grassy area overlooking the South China Sea that could have easily been converted into a luxury, top flight, golf course simply by putting in the holes and placing the little flags on the greens. The sand traps were already in place as were these sort of nascent greens, fairways and rough. It was perfect, all just waiting for golf balls and golfers.

There is an actual golf course near there now, the Ocean Dunes Golf Club, Phan Thiet designed by Nick Faldo. It is reputed to be one of the finest golf courses in South East Asia and is located just northeast of Phan Thiet, only a few miles away from where this action took place.

ocean-dunes-golf-club-phan-thiet

Ocean Dunes Golf Club, Phan Thiet

I was actually enjoying our early morning stroll when, suddenly as we walked along, I heard someone screaming from the radio handset behind me. I looked back to see Hal Dobie, my RTO, running up to give me the black plastic handset he was holding out in his right hand.

Then it sunk in, the voice on the radio had yelled:

“It’s a lion! It’s a lion! It’s a fucking tiger!”

And then right before Hal got to me with the hand set, a perfect maelstrom of bullets arrived first. There were bullets flying everywhere, luckily no M-79 rounds were fired so no explosions, but lots of lead was flying all over, all around us and close too. It was as though you could hear each bullet cracking harshly as it broke the sound barrier on its way past us. Intense, agonizing, and fierce at the same time.

Then, I saw the enormous, orange and black, candy-striped, white-fanged, cat, running flat out in the space between my platoon and the following platoon’s column formations. That cat was huge; including the tail it looked to be at least 14 feet long. It was running all-out trying to get away from the crazy humans with the black, bang sticks trying their best to hurt it.

It was a tiger, a very big tiger. A just a few feet away, tiger. No cage. No whip. No chair. No animal tamer. Thrilling yes, but in a really bad way.

indochinese-tiger-pictures_1

An Indochinese tiger

Like everyone else in my platoon, I was dropping to the ground as fast as I could because the bullets kept pouring in from behind us as the following platoon tried its best to shoot the fleet footed tiger. I don’t know how long it lasted, but the act of getting down on the ground was almost like being in some sort of scary cartoon horror movie where your feet come up, but you stay right there, suspended in mid-air waiting for gravity to take effect while tracers flamed bright red as they flashed closely by. That part seemed to last forever as ever more bullets cracked and whistled all around us.

Everybody missed the tiger. When last seen it was still heading northeast toward the South China Sea in the distance, still running flat out in spectacular leaps and graceful bounds across what still looked strangely like a well-manicured, gently rolling, golf fairway.  .  .

Although there is little worse for an infantryman than being fired on from the rear, I held my temper and complemented the following platoon leader, who will remain forever nameless, on the almost supernatural accuracy of his men in avoiding hitting any of my men when his platoon had opened fire on the tiger; and in the interest of future cooperation, I also did not mention the complete lack of any observable hits on the tiger.

Frankly though, thinking about it later, that lack of hits worried me even more than the tiger had.  .  .  Not as much as those bullets flashing by though, but that tiger, that was something special. I can’t forget that tiger.

While no animals were hurt creating this story, it was not for lack of trying. Afterward, well afterward, I for one, was glad that beautiful tiger got away.

The Attack At the Bridge

35th-Tet-Anniversary-400x

The Attack At the Bridge

by john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

that is Schlax with the interpreter in the upper right.

That is Schlax with the interpreter in the upper right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our radio conversations during a firefight usually consisted of:

“What do you have?”

“What do you want to do?”

“What do you want me to do?”

“What do you need?”

“Do you have any casualties?”

And my personal favorite from Gaffney:

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

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

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

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

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

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

M-60Picture fixed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FourPltldrs

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

 

6801801 - Phan Thiet-City and Peninsuula.NE

The Ca Ty River near Phan Thiet.

My Mother’s Machine-gun

by: johneharrison

In October of 1967 my unit, the fabled 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment of World War II, Band of Brothers fame, deployed to Vietnam as part of the 101st Airborne Division. Although we did not know it then, we would be there for the bloodiest year of that conflict.

After a short orientation at Phan Rang, we were sent to the field, Search and Destroy the Army called it; but to us we were chasing Charlie as the saying went even though we rarely caught up with him at first. Since we were resupplied either every three, four or even five days in the field, and since I did not want my Mother to become accustomed to getting a letter from me on some regular basis, I purposefully wrote to her spasmodically, rather than regularly.

A few months later, I was sitting on an LZ in the field near Phan Thiet on the coast and more or less the center of Vietnam waiting for a resupply when I realized that I owed my Mother a letter. It had been two re-supplies already, over six days, since I had last written. However, I could not think of anything to say to her.

As usual, I had started the letter with the date in the upper right hand corner followed by approximately where I was in Vietnam. So, I wrote “January 25, 1968”, followed by “Phan Thiet, RVN”, but that was as far as I could get. Then, I looked down at the last page of a Stars & Stripes newspaper in my lap and it had a small article about a strike at the Colt Patent Firearms Company plant in Connecticut that made the M-60 machine-guns we used. Each platoon usually carried three of them but since one of mine was in for repair, I was in the field with only two machine-guns.

So, I started the letter, “Here I am in Vietnam short one machine-gun for my platoon and these Bozos are sitting safe at home and are out on strike while we are fighting a war. . .” That got me started and I went on with the letter talking about how quiet it was where we were, how hot the temperature was, how beautiful the South China Sea was, how safe Phan Thiet was, then some more about the missing machine-gun and so forth. Then, I sealed it; ran it to the helicopter, and thought no more about it.

When my Mother arrived home from her job at Georgetown University on February 3, 1968, she was already worried and wanted to watch the evening news.  The battles of Tet ‘68 had started and they led the news. Therefore, she was particularly happy to see a letter from me in the day’s mail. She got herself a glass of wine, turned on the television to the CBS evening news, and sat down to read my letter.

She opened my letter only moments before Walter Cronkite’s face appeared on the screen; she just had time to read the date, and location when Cronkite’s famous voice intoned his lead story:

“Today in Phan Thiet, Vietnam, there was savage fighting as the Viet Cong tried to seize the normally sleepy provincial capital. Units of the 101st Airborne Division met the enemy head on in a series of exceptionally violent battles that started early in the morning and continued all day. There were heavy casualties on both sides. . .”

My Mother sat there stunned. She read the top of my letter again; she read the name of town on the screen; she read the top of my letter again; she read the name of town on the screen. She started crying. Then, mercifully the news program broke for a commercial. The news from Vietnam actually got worse from there. She continued to cry, and sip her wine.

For those of you that do not remember, CBS’s Walter Cronkite was a god, an oracle of truth at the time, and unfortunately he was not at all upbeat about the chances of even the legendary 101st Airborne Division to hold on to the town of Phan Thiet under such a ferocious assault by a well armed, well supplied and numerically superior enemy.

It was about the only time Phan Thiet made the national news, but we made it big time that night. According to Cronkite the fighting was severe everywhere, up and down the coast of Vietnam, so there was no possibility of reinforcements for the embattled 101st Airborne Division in Phan Thiet. This dire prediction was his close off line for the extended news program.

Except getting up for more wine during commercial breaks, my Mother watched it all. Then, she sat there in her living room staring at the now blank TV screen.  She cried for a while, then she finished reading my letter and the rest of her bottle of wine, her dinner forgotten. Her son was in trouble, and he needed a machine gun. She was sure of that.

A little after midnight my Mother called her mother in Savannah, Georgia. A Depression era baby, it was a testament to her worry that my Mother did not once think of the cost of the long distance call. She had opened a new bottle of wine as well.

They talked for a while. They both cried for a while. They talked about machine-guns repeatedly but not very knowledgeably, but they knew all about war. Both had lived through World War II and the Korean War by then. Finally, around two in the morning, her mother, my grandmother said:

“Let’s call Dickie.”

It turned out that “Dickie” was Senator Richard B. Russell, Jr., the senior senator from the State of Georgia and probably the most powerful Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee ever. However, many years before he had been a young boy in my grandmother’s, then Miss Varina Bacon’s class for two years at the Seventh District Agricultural and Mechanical School in Powder Springs, Cobb County, Georgia. In addition, Senator Russell’s mother, Ina Dillard Russell, was a teacher and was my grandmother’s best friend.

That was probably why my grandmother had Senator Russell’s home phone number, which she talked an AT&T operator into making a conference call to at about 3:00 AM. The two women just cried on the phone together as they waited for the call to be put through.

With Senator Russell on the line now, the three of them discussed machine-guns, and why Lieutenant Harrison’s platoon, did not have enough of them. My grandmother wanted to know exactly what Senator “Dickie” Russell was going to do about this problem of national importance, how had he let it happen in the first place and could he also see to it that the strikers were put in jail, or better yet, shot.

After midnight, both my grandmother and particularly my Mother could be of a seriously violent inclination. My Mother was the one that suggested shooting the strikers.

My father had always said that United States District Court Judges, United States Senators and any truly pissed off American mother could cause more trouble than anything else in the world. Here we had two angry, very scared American mothers and a powerful but sleep deprived United States Senator. Things were sure to be interesting in the morning.

Although the majority of our training was for combat patrols in the jungle, the majority of the fighting we actually did during Tet '68 was street fighting in the cities and towns of Vietnam.

Although the majority of our training was for combat patrols in the jungle, the majority of the fighting we actually did during Tet ’68 was street fighting in the cities and towns of Vietnam.  This is what it looks like.  We were using trucks this time because the VC had shot up so many of our helicopters we were saving the ones we had left for Dust Off.  Photo by Jerry Berry.

Meanwhile, the battles in Vietnam continued. Luckily, my missing machine-gun had been repaired and returned before the start of Tet because we had been busy. Finding Charlie was no longer the problem.

JEH Under Fire

We were actually being shot at when this picture was taken.  One of my men sent it to me several years ago.  I am left middle in front of my RTO, Hal Dobie of Yakima, Washington.  That is “Bull” Gergen, a full blooded Cherokee Indian member of the Ranger Hall of Fame and our First Sergeant, coming up on the right.  It was his second war, third tour.  James Philyaw third from right.  I am standing looking over a hedgerow.  We are on our way back into Phan Thiet.

A day or so after the telephone call to Senator Russell my platoon was embroiled in some of the fiercest house to house fighting of the war in downtown Phan Thiet when my RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) Hal Dobie of Yakima, Washington, handed me the radio hand set saying there was a man that said he was a Colonel on the radio asking for “Lieutenant John Harrison” in the clear. This violated so many Army rules and regulations that he had not answered the transmission.

I truly did not know what to do. After the third time I heard him identify himself as Colonel something or other, I have forgotten his name, and again asked for Lieutenant John Harrison I just said “Yes.” rather than saying, “This is Alpha 2-6”, meaning, Alpha Company 2nd platoon leader, as I usually would have identified myself.

The Colonel then said he had a machine-gun for me and where could he put his helicopter down so he could deliver it to me. I said I was pretty busy at the moment—after all a lot of people were shooting at us.

He reminded me that he was a Colonel, that I was 2nd Lieutenant and he demanded in the most forceful manner a landing zone, immediately.

Since he was so insistent, I said that the area in front of my platoon was wide open, plenty of room to land a helicopter, but then I had to warn him that he would be under heavy fire, both machine-guns and rockets as he landed. His choice. I think the pilot talked some sense into the demanding Colonel and he decided to leave the machine-gun back at our base camp, LZ Betty.

When we finally got back to LZ Betty a couple of days later, the Company armorer was still cleaning that machine-gun. The Colonel had tried to deliver an M-60 machine gun, to an active firefight, encased in a wooden box, enveloped in thick plastic shrink wrap, and full of thick cosmoline, but with no ammunition.

It took our armorer, Carl Rattee, three days and a tub of gasoline to get the machinegun ready to fire. But when he was done, it was beautiful.

My nick name for the gun was

My nick name for the gun was “instant fire superiority”, and all but one time that was true.

Strangely, unlike every other weapon in the battalion this particular machine-gun was assigned directly to me, to Lieutenant John Harrison. It was my very own machine-gun, from my Mom. I liked it and when the Army made me give it back when I left Vietnam, I thought about calling her, but then, I thought it might make her angry.  .  .