Tag Archives: Tet Offensive

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.


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!


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.


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.


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/

Brothers then, Brothers now.

Brothers then, Brothers now

by: john harrison

Once when we were in Vietnam we found several hundred pounds of marijuana. Like the American Army did with beer, apparently the VC/NVA handed out marijuana to their troops as a morale booster.

According to one of my soldiers who said he was in a position to know, this was:

“Good shit. Really good shit, L-T.”

We burned all of it on top of a mountain near Dalat. Alpha Company was in a 360°, all around, defensive perimeter, but when we burned the marijuana the down wind side of the perimeter seemed to be especially well defended to me. So, I went to the up wind side.

I was not being virtuous, I thought that at least it could warn the rest even if I was shot. Anyway marijuana had never appealed to me because I was afraid of getting hooked, like I was already hooked on cigarettes.  It wasn’t virtue that kept me away from the burning marijuana, it was fear. The fact that I liked smoking cigarettes did not change that I recognized that I was also hooked on them too.

On that hill top near Dalat was the first time I ran into marijuana in a professional sense. After I got back from Vietnam several years later I was a partner in a local law firm and that was when I ran into it again, professionally speaking.

Almost all law firms do some form of Pro bono work. That means doing free work for some clients as a matter of professional responsibility. Some law firms take impact cases as a form of Pro bono and also for the free advertising it generates for the law firm, but you do need to win those cases for that to really work, and the bigger the impact, the better the publicity, the harder they are to win. Anyway, I never thought “impact cases” were real Pro bono. So, we did not do them.

What my law firm did was that we would reduce our fee to our cost for middle income folks’ personal cases. The rich get any lawyer they want since they can afford to pay for it. There are many free legal services for the poor, but there is pretty much nothing for a middle income person in legal trouble.

Lets say your kid gets charged with marijuana possession, or some other crime, even reckless driving. You could be looking at paying a substantial legal fee or risk watching your child go to jail, or even prison; particularly in Virginia where we practiced.

If a case is criminal, the entire fee must be paid up front before the lawyer even lifts a pencil. It can devastate even an upper middle class family’s finances. For example, the up front fee for a felony could easily be the same as a year’s tuition at a good private university. A major felony indictment would be much more, still paid up front. Most people find it hard to just write a check for that kind of money.

So, that was one thing we did. The other Pro bono work we did was we would take any former enlisted airborne soldier’s case for free. I owe enlisted airborne soldiers a lot and that was one way I could recognize that debt.

Somehow, John Powers* a former member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) heard of us and asked for legal representation.

John was a highly decorated former Staff Sergeant who had served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) in Vietnam twice, two full tours. He had earned the Bronze Star for Valor with two Oak Leaf Clusters meaning that he had three of them, three Purple Hearts as well, a couple of Air Medals, an Army Commendation Medal with a “V” device and an Oak Leaf Cluster for that medal as well.

For those that have not been in the military, that’s a lot of medals. He also had all of the usual service and campaign ribbons, topped of course by a Combat Infantryman’s Badge with silver jump wings on the bottom.

Most veterans know that the awarding of medals often has more to do with who lives after a particular action rather than what happened. It is not that the medals awarded are not deserved so much as it is that there are often many more men that deserve medals but do not receive them because everyone that saw the deed is dead, or because there is no one left alive that can write well, or even because the person that earned but never received a medal was not particularly well liked in the unit. In addition, an officer is likely to get a Silver Star for the same things that an enlisted man might get a Bronze Star with a “V” device for doing.

Generally as well, the more elite the unit, the harder it is to win a particular medal. It’s not fair, but that is the way it often works. The only exception is the Medal of Honor, everyone is equally unlikely to get that medal.

Most important for a former Airborne trooper, John’s wings, his silver Parachutist Badge, had a little bronze star right in the center. That meant he had made what we called a “combat blast.” He had been a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) when they parachuted into combat in Vietnam. The 173rd was the only large American unit in the Vietnam War to make a combat jump and John had been there, done that. For an Airborne man that is truly special.

Jumping, on purpose, out of a perfectly good airplane in flight according to my brother the former Marine is simply stupid. However, landing by parachute among the enemy is the dream of men that jump out of perfectly good airplanes on purpose. John was such a man.

Even without the combat blast, how many jobs as a part of the job description require you to “close with and destroy” an enemy that may be shooting at you with a machine gun while his buddy also tosses hand grenades at you? How many require you to charge up a hill when there are people with automatic weapons, grenades, mortars, rockets, etc., that do not want you to join them on that hilltop? How many such jobs are there?

It is important to recognize that closing with and then killing a well armed, well trained enemy is just part of the job of being infantry. While it does not happen every day, doing this is not special. You do not get a medal for this; this is what you are supposed to do every time you run into the enemy. It is your job.

Given this, these kinds of medals, particularly for an enlisted man from an elite Airborne unit mean they have done something truly special, probably truly dangerous as well. Clearly, John had done something “special”, something probably incredibly dangerous as well, many times over.

John also had cancer, liver cancer. He had a particularly virulent form of liver cancer that had a less than 8% survival rate at the time. He was in a special trial program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center but still, he had a prognosis of less than a year to live when he asked for our representation. Today we would know it was Agent Orange, back then nobody knew, or if they did know, they were not telling. However, since John had still been in the Army when it started, Walter Reed had included him in the program.

Actually, John was special period. He was tall, well over six feet. He was thin, “raw boned” they called it in his native Texas. He had pale blue eyes and a shock of blond hair that he kept neatly trimmed when had any hair at all. At the time I knew him, because of his chemo treatments, John was bald and wore a hat all the time. But, most of all John was just a laid back, nice guy.

One of the things that chemo does besides treating the cancer and killing all of your hair follicles is that it gives you nausea. It can give you nausea so bad you can’t eat, and even if you force yourself to eat like a good patient, the nausea may make you throw it all up. That is why so many of the patients were dying in John’s program at Walter Reed; they were literally starving to death under some of the best medical care in the world.

All of them except John Powers that is. Except for the liver cancer, John was doing well, better than anybody else in the program.  John was eating well, and he was keeping it down. His weight was stable. As far as he knew, no one in the Walter Reed program ever connected it to marijuana.

Remember this was in the late 1970’s. According to John, the Walter Reed doctors assumed that his lack of a nausea response to the brutal chemical medications they were giving him was genetic; but it was not genetic, it was marijuana, lots and lots of really good marijuana. Then and now marijuana was illegal in Virginia. John was not about to tell anybody that he was a user, a pot head and a grower, so the doctors either did not know that John was using, or they turned a blind eye.

No reputable doctors at the time prescribed marijuana to treat their patients. In fact, Federal law defined marijuana as an illegal, useless, drug, and found as a matter of law that it had no therapeutic effect whatsoever. However, though the law said that marijuana had no therapeutic effect, even the law cannot make the untrue, true.

Besides everything else, John Powers was a masterful marijuana grower with a very green thumb. He grew marijuana in his back yard. He had a townhouse in Fairfax County near Washington, D. C. It was an end unit with a much larger yard than most. He grew a lot of marijuana in that yard for years.

Getting the munchies regularly and the heavy duty chemo he was receiving at Walter Reed was what was keeping John alive.

You could almost sum up John when I met him in one sentence: he had cancer mostly in remission; he drove an old, beat up, but bright yellow, bath tub, Porsche convertible usually very fast, summer and winter, with the top down, and he grew a lot of really good marijuana in his back yard. He also liked to read.

All was fine until a Virginia State Trooper living next door to John noticed the marijuana plants. When the trooper saw the plants peaking over John’s fence he arrested John. In fact, he dragged John, just returned from a stay in the hospital, out of his townhouse in handcuffs.

I met John in the prisoners’ library at the Fairfax County Jail two days after his arrest. All of the interview rooms were in use so the Deputy Sheriff let me use the prisoners’ library to interview John. He told me his history. He said that he never sold marijuana. The closest he would come to that was now and then he would trade seeds with other growers. Because of the high level of THC in his marijuana plants, John’s marijuana seeds were sort of celebrities in the local world of marijuana growers, but they were still a rarity, because he refused to sell to anybody.

His legal trouble started when his plants grew taller than the fence in his backyard. When that had happened in the past he had just topped the plants to keep them below the fence. However, his most recent relapse and subsequent hospital stay had been poorly timed. His stay in Walter Reed that time started in late April, lots of rain, leading into May with lots of sun that year. His plants in his back yard had just exploded while he was in Walter Reed and his Virginia State Trooper neighbor had no sense of humor at all.

There was more pot in the attic in three large, steamer trunks, dried and ready to smoke. Counting the steamer trunks, what was drying in John’s two otherwise unused upstairs bedrooms and what was growing in the back yard the Virginia State Police seized about 200 pounds of pot.

Virginia’s laws on pot possession at the time were especially stringent. For example, there was already one unlucky soul in the Virginia State penitentiary system for his tenth year. His crime? Possession of three marijuana cigarettes. Because of the generous amount of marijuana in the home rolled joints, they met the weight requirement of the presumptive intent to distribute standard in Virginia. The judge in Richmond had maxed this unlucky man’s prison sentence out to thirty years. John was in trouble, big legal trouble.

The first thing I did was talk to John’s doctors at Walter Reed.  They said that John had a year to live, at most. Actually they said that he should already be dead. John was one of their few stars and they did not want to lose him from their medical trial. Besides that, they just liked him.

I got John’s course of treatment from the Walter Reed doctors and filed an emergency motion in the Fairfax County Circuit Court to require the Sheriff’s Department which ran the jail to continue the cancer treatments while John was in custody. These treatments were quite extensive, and quite expensive as well. That was the opening shot of our defense. Naturally, the Circuit Court judge turned it down. Anything that is likely to cost the taxpayers of Virginia a lot of money is even more likely to be turned down by a Virginia state court judge.

However, I never really expected to win there. What I expected, and got was the Assistant Commonwealth Attorney’s agreement on a substantial reduction in John’s bail. That way John would be out of jail and could continue his treatment on the U.S. Army’s dime at Walter Reed. The Assistant Commonwealth Attorney did not want to risk that I would win the motion if I refiled it, this time in Federal Court in Alexandria.

John was out of jail until trial. Round one for us.

Then I got a copy of John’s DD-214 form which listed his medals, as well as copies of all of the citations describing what he had done to win those various medals. Finally I got the doctors at Walter Reed to write a diagnosis and a prognosis for John.

From the standpoint of what I was trying to do, the prognosis was wonderful; from John’s standpoint it was awful. According to the doctors John was sure to die, quite painfully, in less than a year, and under any standard, he was a certifiable war hero with an extraordinary record of personal heroism in America’s service.

I got it all together and took it to the then Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney, Robert Horan. I knew Bob Horan to say hello to in the courthouse, but nothing more. However, I was counting on his reputation as a true Virginia Gentleman. That really was all I had. If Horan was less than that, then John would surely die in prison.

All I wanted, all I hoped for was an agreement that the case would be continued for at least a year, because I expected that John would probably die by then. In the meantime he could continue treatment at Walter Reed. He could live in his home. I wanted it because John was a good man and a hero, a true American Airborne hero, and paying or not, he was my client.

There were no great legal theories to justify what I was asking for, only compassion, a little common sense and a sense of justice. All of which are unfortunately in very short supply in most courthouses.

He is retired now, but then Bob Horan was known as a tough prosecutor and in conservative Virginia that meant something.  The Commonwealth Attorney, or state prosecutor, is an elected position in Virginia and when other prosecutors in the Commonwealth had a tough case that they were afraid they would lose, they would call on Bob Horan to win it for them. They called on him often. He was that good.

When he tried a case he would often sit at counsel table alone during motions and trial, no bevy of assistants, not even any worker bees outside the courtroom doing the grunt work to get the case ready for trial.  Most times he prepared his own cases. He did his own legal research. He tried his own cases, and he usually won them as well. His office also would try any case where he thought the defendant was guilty, whether they thought they would win or not.

All of this is very unusual for a chief prosecutor. It is almost unheard of for an elected prosecutor. But, Bob Horan was so good that he could be different. That was exactly what I was counting on.

Sometimes I think: “How am I still alive? Given what I have done and where I have been, how could I still be alive?” I have not come up with an answer except that in Vietnam my platoon kept me alive and ever since then I have been equally lucky.  Only the luck of having some very good, very tough paratroopers around me had saved me in Vietnam, and luck had also kept me alive as the target of an honest to God hit man after Vietnam (See: https://johneharrison.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/have-you-ever-been-the-target-of-a-hit-man/).

My life, that is what I think I owe the paratroopers that I served with in the 101st Airborne Division, just my life. That is why I took John’s case. Now I had to do something with it. I had a plan, but that was all I had so far.

I gathered all of the documents together and made an appointment with Bob Horan. I was ready with a real tear jerker of a spiel, but I never got to say any of it. When I arrived at his office, Bob’s secretary asked me to leave my materials. She assured me that Bob would review them himself and that he would call me before the end of the week.

Not a good start I thought. The plan was not working.

I was wrong. On Friday afternoon Bob Horan himself called me at my office. With little preamble he told me he had reviewed my materials and that he was willing to drop the charges entirely, but he had not talked to the state trooper yet. As a matter of courtesy, almost all prosecutors will talk to the arresting officer before they drop a case. However, he said that regardless of what the trooper said, the case against John would go away. He promised that.

I called John Powers and told him the good news. Then I went home for what I thought was a well deserved, great weekend with my kids.

On Monday it all turned to shit. That is a technical legal term, “turned to shit.” You could look it up in Black’s Law Dictionary.

The state trooper was enraged when Horan told him that he was dismissing the case. The problem was that the trooper had lived next door to a man that grew, and had in his house one of the largest marijuana seizures in Fairfax County history up to that time. After congratulating him the trooper’s boss had later figured out that the trooper had lived next door to the grower for about three years and that during all of that time marijuana, a lot of marijuana had been grown right under his trooper’s nose in John’s backyard.

Worse, almost every morning for those three years the trooper had eaten in a breakfast nook, bump out, in his kitchen that overlooked John’s backyard. However, the trooper had not noticed the bumper crop of marijuana, mixed in with tomato plants, the several rows of corn and other vegetables that John grew there every summer.

Although his boss did not know it, it had been the trooper’s daughter that had asked him what the plants were that were hanging over the their backyard fence. She thought that they were weeds growing in John’s garden. She wanted to get rid of them for her friend, the neighbor who gave them tomatoes every summer. The one who was very sick and was just back from the hospital.

The trooper really looked at the plants for the first time. He said one of those technical legal terms quite loudly and promptly went next door to arrest his neighbor.

According to Horan, in our awful Monday morning telephone call, now the rest of the troopers in the sub-station were asking the trooper things like: “How can you tell if a bank is being robbed?” or, “What does a speeding car really look like?” But, both the trooper, and his boss, were having a lot of trouble seeing the humor.

Since the marijuana was also a Federal offense, the trooper said if Horan dropped the case, he would go to the United States Attorney, the federal prosecutor. Since it was so much marijuana, and since it was such an easy conviction given the facts, Horan thought that the U. S. Attorney would take the case in a heartbeat.

We had to do something or John was on his way to a federal prison.

It was Horan’s idea. He had made a promise and he intended to keep it. He said that to quiet the State Trooper, he would keep the charges pending; it would all be there, the 200 or so pounds of weed that they took out of the yard and the upstairs bedrooms, and the three large chests of marijuana from the attic, the years of growing it in his backyard, everything and if the feds did anything Horan would call me and I would bring John in to plead guilty, but to a misdemeanor charge as minor as he could talk the judge into. Until then, the case would just sit there. You could count on Bob Horan.

Even the Feds can’t trump double jeopardy. While technically, it would not actually be double jeopardy because there are two sovereigns, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Federal government. Still, trying John twice for exactly the same thing was practically impossible.

I told John what had happened and he was satisfied. That would normally be the end of our work together. The case was over.

However, about a week later John called me in a rage. He wanted to hire me again. He said that the Virginia State Police would not give him back his marijuana or even his seeds. In fact, they told him that they had already burned it. John said that it was his best crop ever, and that they had even taken the seeds he thought that he had hidden.

He had nothing left. He wanted justice. He wanted his marijuana back, and in fact he probably needed it to keep living. He demanded that I file suit immediately.

He was even more enraged when I told him that he could not win such a lawsuit. In legal terms, his marijuana and the seeds were contraband. In actual terms, they were already gone. The state police had “seized” them, not “stolen” them.

He would not shut up. John was still yelling at me when I finally just hung the phone up. Among other things, I was no longer his favorite “L-T”, but there was nothing legally that could be done that I could see.

That was the last time I heard from John until I saw in the Washington Post a little over a year later that he had died. He was buried with full military honors in Culpeper National Cemetary between his father and his younger brother. After John’s brother Bill had been killed in Vietnam he had been buried next to his father who was a World War II veteran, but they had left a space between them for John.

Bob Horan was there at the funeral. We nodded. The trooper did not show, but his daughter was there with her mother. They had liked John too. John was special.

*John Powers is not his real name. He was my client, and dead or not, I can’t use his name. jeh

On Staying Alive by Being Inept

By john harrison

It happened in 1968, the bloodiest year of a long, bloody war. Alpha Company had just been resupplied with ammunition after yet another firefight.  It was still Tet ’68. We were moving across a wide expanse of rice paddies dotted with small groups of mud and wattle houses with thatched roofs in the Disneyland area near Phan Thiet, RVN, aka the place where the Infantry plays. That day, Disneyland had a lesson in humility waiting for me.


It was late morning that day, but it was already brutally hot. As usual, the 2nd Platoon had the point for Alpha Company.

Just after the point left a group of huts, a hand grenade exploded behind me, and a fountain of water shot up into the sky. Someone had dropped a hand grenade down a well next to the rice paddy. It created a cooling shower if you were standing on the side where some of the water came down. You also got rid of a hand grenade.

The next thing that happened was that my RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) Hal Dobie handed me the PRC-25, radio handset and said simply:


Meaning that Alpha 6, or the Company Commander of Alpha Company, Tom Gaffney was on the horn and wanted to talk to me.

“This is 2-6. Go ahead.” I said.

Meaning this is the 2nd Platoon Leader. We had recently switched from using “Over” to using “Go ahead” and then “Go” as radio pro words probably because we thought it sounded cooler.

“This is 6, what do you have? Go.” asked Gaffney.

“2-6. Nothing. Just one of the guys getting rid of an excess hand grenade from the resupply. I’ll stop it. Go.” I replied.

But for having to answer the radio, I already would have been doing exactly that.

“No. We felt something back here in the ground when the hand grenade went off. There may be a tunnel. Check it out. Go.” Gaffney said.

“Roger. Out.”

I went back to the well, just a four foot wide hole in the ground lined with rock and looked down it. When I asked for a hand grenade I had several offers. The M-26 hand grenade that we used weighed exactly a pound each and was rarely used except in very close combat. This meant, once you were issued one, you would be carrying it for a while. We had just been resupplied and they sent out too many hand grenades so a lot of guys wanted to get shed of the extra weight.


That little hand grenade weighed the same as half a canteen of water. As hot as it was, we needed the water; the grenades, not so much right then. Troops in the field are very practical about the weight they carry. If it is useful, it almost does not matter how much it weighs. If it is not useful, it does not matter how little it weighs.

Hand grenades are also just plain dangerous to be around. One company commander, and all of that company’s medics had been wounded a month or so before when the pin on a hand grenade, which had been badly rusted from months in the field, sheared off and the grenade exploded in the company CP (Command Post) during a medics meeting.

Disasters like that were happening so often that a new order came down from division soon after requiring that all hand grenades be carried inside a canteen cover rather than on the webbing.

I took one of the offered hand grenades; pulled the pin; let the spoon fly, and dropped it down the well as I stepped a little way back from the edge. In four point five seconds exactly, the grenade went off; a tower of water emerged from the well and then most of it splashed back down into the well.

I went over and looked down the well. Just to the left of where I was standing and about seven or eight feet down I could now see the top of a round hole in the side of the well’s wall. It was about three feet in diameter and looked a lot like a tunnel to me. I asked for another hand grenade and again received several offers. I took one, pulled the pin, popped the spoon and tried to toss it into the round hole in the side of the well but it missed the hole entirely. It bounced off and landed in the water below.

Four point five seconds later, it went bang, large water plume. Then, I walked over to the side of the well and looked down again.

This time I saw an entire circle in the side of the well and it looked even more like a tunnel entrance. I took another grenade and leaned out over the well. I wanted to stay on my feet because I wanted to be able to move back from the edge quickly. After all, a grenade was going to explode. I wanted to be no where near that. This time I was even more careful with my toss, but the grenade hit something metal sounding inside the hole, bounced out and blew up in the water in the bottom of the well just like the first three hand grenades.

Since they now knew where the water going to splash, more of my guys managed to get wet from the spray each time I dropped a hand grenade. While they maintained the perimeter around the well, some rotated in each time for the spray.

This time I lay down on the side of the top of the well to try to look into the hole. I planned to try to lean down, toss in the grenade and then just roll away from the well. I had already pulled the pin from the hand grenade.

Then, for the first time I saw the bent, grey, metal fins in the hole. I had heard the expression: “My heart stopped.” Now I experienced the feeling too. However, I would have described it as more like someone dropping a solid concrete block on my chest from about ten feet above me. I kept a death grip on that hand grenade’s spoon.


Now that water plumes had washed out the entrance to the tunnel, I could see the bent back fins, clearly. I could see the fins of what looked very much like the fins on a 750 lbs., High Drag, United States Air Force, bomb. Clutching that hand grenade tightly, I rolled away from the edge of the well.

“Get back!” I yelled and kept right on rolling away from the edge of that well as fast as I could roll.

With a High Drag bomb, when the plane releases the bomb, the fins pop out. The fins do three things: they stabilize the bomb in flight; they slow the bomb down so the aircraft can get clear of the blast; and, they will only arm the bomb if the aircraft has enough time to get clear of the blast.

Since the bomb is more stable in flight because of the fins, it is more accurate. It can be dropped from the plane closer to the target because the fins delay the bomb’s strike. The pilot can drop it more confidently because it will not go off unless he has time to get away from the blast. The disadvantage is, if the pilot drops it too close, it leaves the bomb there unexploded giving the enemy a lot of free high explosive for their own improvised explosive devices.

When I was twenty or so feet away from the well I sat up and carefully put the pin back in the hand grenade. I took my time and cautiously bent the pin ends back to secure the pin in its hole.

I was really proud that my hands were not shaking—surprised me too.

Probably only my own natural ineptness as a tosser of hand grenades had saved my life and the lives of most of my men. An Air Force 750 lbs. bomb blast produces a crater of about 35 feet in width. Most of my platoon had been standing within a 35-foot wide circle around that well.

If one of the hand grenades had stayed in the tunnel; if it had rolled down, past the bent fins, closer to the explosive in the bomb; if it had set off the bomb, we would have all literally become an emulsified mess of blood, flesh and small bits of shattered bone.

They spent about a week in OCS (Officer Candidate School) showing us the many ways to set off explosives. One of the best and most often used ways to set off an explosive is called sympathetic detonation. You just set off an explosion as close to another explosive as you can, and the first explosive blowing up will set off the second one as well.

In a way, that is what a blasting cap does. You slide the cap into the explosive, or sometimes you place it beside the explosive and when the cap explodes, it also sets off the main explosive. When engineers rig multiple explosives to blow, they use sympathetic detonation to set them off, usually with Det Cord, sort of a thick rope made of high explosive.

One example of sympathetic detonation that I had seen recently was watching the engineers throw a hand grenade into a lot different explosives they had piled in a hollow tree to blow that tree out of the way to create an LZ (Landing Zone). The effect was the same as placing the blasting cap into the explosive you wanted to set off. Being in a confined space, like in that hollow tree, or in a tunnel, made it even more likely for one explosive blast to set off another nearby explosive.

It had been just dumb luck that I had missed the tunnel entirely with the first hand grenade I threw at it, and that the second hand grenade had bounced off of the high drag fins that gave the bomb its accuracy and stability. I do not know if a one-pound hand grenade is enough to set off a 750 lbs. bomb, but in the right place, in the close quarters of a tunnel, it might be.

If other bombs had been dropped nearby, almost a certainty since this bomb had not exploded and the fighter pilot surely would have tried again, then the explosives in this 750 lbs. bomb could have become unstable. Then, even a firecracker exploding nearby might set it off.

When we walked on, leaving the bomb to our engineers, I tried to give the hand grenade back to its owner, but no one would admit that it was theirs and I could not remember who gave me that one. I did not want to carry that hand grenade either. I kept wondering about all the bending of the pin? It was heavy too.

Soon after that, we heard the bomb go off. Naturally, the engineers had set it off by sympathetic detonation.

I kept that grenade, but when we passed the next well, I pulled the pin and tossed it in.

Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

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

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.


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.