Tag Archives: Vietnam legacy

A Way You’ll Never Be

A Way You’ll Never Be

by: john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hq-building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6802983 - Ammo Dump Destruction - Version 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

PhanThietMap

Map showing LZ Betty and the length of the runway.

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

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

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


Author’s Note

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

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The Stop in Olongapo

The Stop in Olongapo

by: john harrison

I knew things had not gone exactly as I had planned when I saw the white pick up truck make a wide right turn onto the pier. It was the one with the big wire cage in the back that the Shore Patrol used as a paddy wagon to haul the drunks off to the Brig. Even before it began to weave as it drove down the pier, despite being the perpetual optimist, I was certain that it was not a good sign. Not a good sign at all.

Of course, there had been hints of trouble before this, for example lots of the men returning to the ship had been wearing different hats when they came back on board. I preferred to assume that they had traded for the Navy and Marine hats, and for the one Aussie hat that I saw as well, so I did not ask any questions.

However, I still thought that it had been a really good plan, right up until I saw that white truck driving down the pier. That scared me. We were all on our way to Vietnam, on a troop ship that was docked in U. S. Naval Base at Subic Bay, the Philippines.

When we arrived at Subic we tied up in the middle of a long concrete pier inside the Naval base. The pier looked to me more like a four lane, concrete highway jutting out into the water than a pier, but that is what it was.

It had all begun late that afternoon, when a sergeant had said that there was a major on the pier that wanted to talk to me. That was when things first began to look different as far as my plan went. I walked down the gang plank and met a Navy Lieutenant Commander standing there at the bottom. Since Army majors and Navy Lieutenant Commanders both wore a gold leaf as their rank insignia, I had already figured out that the Navy guy was who the sergeant was referring me to.

“Are you the Provost Marshall?” he asked without any preliminary.

“Yes. I’m Lt. Harrison. What can I do for you Commander?” I said as I saluted.

I knew that Navy Lieutenant Commanders loved to be called “Commander” just like Army Lieutenant Colonels liked to be called “Colonel.” A little light sucking-up to start never hurts I thought.

“You can come get your men out of my EM club.” he said.

“What?” I replied.

“They have taken over one of the EM clubs on base and they won’t leave. They have my bartenders and a couple of Shore Patrol in there with them.” he said.

“Oh.” I said and then I turned to the sergeant that had followed me down and said.

“Go get the Response Group please.”

He said: “Yes Sir” and ran back up the gang plank.

In a moment he came back with a Sergeant First Class from the 503rd leading eight large sergeants carrying axe handles, four each from the 503rd and the 506th.

“Let’s go.” I said.

We walked quickly over to the EM Club and found what looked like about a platoon of Marines in formation along with another Lieutenant Commander on the street in front of the club’s parking lot. There were also six Shore Patrol led by a Petty officer who looked very angry. His men were repeatedly slapping their black billy clubs, or batons, on their palms as they waited.

“Are you the Provost!” this second Lieutenant Commander practically shouted at me as he too ignored my salute.

“Yes Sir.” I replied. “I am the ship’s Provost Marshall. What’s going on?”

“I’m about to break some heads. Your men have assaulted and kidnapped my men. We are going to take this club back right now.” the second Lieutenant Commander said.

“Well, you’re probably going to have a lot of hurt Marines and shore patrol if you try that.” I said.

“We’ll hurt some of your jerks too. You can bet on it.” he replied.

I looked over at the door to the EM club. The whole area in front of the door was littered with beer cans, lots of beer cans. Some were still spewing beer so it was pretty clear that they had been full, or nearly so when they were thrown. A couple of the Shore Patrol uniforms looked wet, but no blood I could see. It looked good to me. I thought things still looked pretty good, considering.

“Sergeant.” I turned and said. The SFC snapped to attention.

“Yes sir.” he replied.

I turned back to the Lieutenant Commander.

“I am the Provost Marshall of that ship. Those men are my responsibility, not yours. You are interfering with a United States Army troop movement. Get out of my way Commander or I will have you arrested.” I said.

The Lieutenant Commander looked at me like he could not believe what he had just heard. In a word, he was gobsmacked.

I thought it sounded pretty good. I had no idea if any of it was true, or if as Provost Marshall I actually had that kind of power. It did not seem likely that I did on a naval base, on his naval base, but I thought that if I could get the men back on the ship, it just might be true.

Then, the sergeant behind me bellowed:

“Port arms.” and eight axe handles came up with eight hands smartly slapping the wood.

The Lieutenant Commander stared at me a moment longer, looked at my sergeant, and then he stepped slowly back.

“You go right ahead Lieutenant.” he said smiling, and then he nodded to the Shore Patrol group. Sort of a “Now, watch this boys.” nod.

“Follow me.” I said to the sergeant. When we were about halfway across the parking lot and well in front of the Shore Patrol and the Marines. I turned and said:

“Sergeant, you come with me. The rest of you form a line. No matter what happens, they do not come forward of your line.” I said to the the eight sergeants with axe handles and indicated the Marines and Shore Patrol behind.

As we walked toward the front door of the club the sergeant said sotto voce to me.

“I hope you know what you are doing Sir.”

“So do I, sergeant. So do I.” I said.

“They’re going to kill us both Sir.” the Sergeant said.

“They might.” I said. I was thinking of our guys, probably all drunk as lords inside, and then there were all those Marines as well as the Shore Patrol. It did not look so good anymore, even to me.

We were still walking toward the door of the EM club when for some reason a scene from the then recent movie Dr. Zhivago that we had just seen on the ship flashed through my mind. In the movie the Russian army was falling apart during World War I. The Russians were deserting the front in droves. They were literally walking home in their thousands.

In this scene, a Russian officer climbs up on a barrel and harangues a group of the fleeing Russian soldiers trying to get them to go back and fight the Germans. He was doing pretty well, but then he lost his footing and fell into the barrel. With that, he lost all of his dignity as an officer. One of the men shot him, and then they continued to desert the front.

I was wearing flip flops because Dr. Andrew Lovy, our battalion surgeon, had operated on my ingrown toenails a few days before. I knew I did not look very dignified, flip flops on my feet and a big white bandage taped on both of my big toes. You can’t blouse flip flops so my pants legs flapped as well. I had my butter bar on one collar, crossed rifles pinned on the other and that was about it for dignity. I could already see myself in that barrel.

But we were lucky. When the door opened, it was an Alpha Company man.

“What are you doing here Lieutenant?” he asked.

“God damn it!” I said.

While I cussed a lot, I very rarely swore. He looked like I had just slapped him. He saluted. Looked for his hat. Found it; fumbled it; put it on his head and saluted again, hitting himself in his eye the second time.

“Everybody out!” I shouted as I pushed him aside. “Get out. Form a column of twos. Let’s go. Do it! Right now! Don’t embarrass me in front of these jarheads! Move it!” I shouted.

I just kept shouting; kept cussing; kept swearing; kept moving; kept looking for faces I recognized; kept making eye contact and kept pointing to the door. I looked over and the sergeant behind me was doing the same. Slowly at first, they left the bar and then formed up into a ragged column of twos in the parking lot.

“Call them to attention sergeant and move them out. Back to the ship.” I said.

“Yes Sir.” my sergeant replied

As we marched past the Marines and Shore Patrol I snapped a salute at the two Lieutenant Commanders and then shuffled the rest of the way back to the ship on my flip flops and with my two sore big toes.

Except for yelling at the Lieutenant Commander I thought it had gone surprisingly well, but I did wonder what had happened to the two Shore Patrol and the bartenders that he had said were inside. At least our own troops, drunk or not, hadn’t killed us, but the jury was still out on what the Lieutenant Commander, the Shore Patrol and all those Marines would do.

I found out later that the guys had initially taken away their nightsticks and then locked the two Shore Patrol in the walk in beer refrigerator for a while after the two Shore Patrol had tried to close the place down. While in the refrigerator, the two Shore Patrol had gotten just as drunk as my guys. When my guys saw they were drunk, they released them and they all drank at the bar together until the two Shore Patrol had passed out. That’s where they found them, passed out, under the bar.

The troopers had paid for all of the beer they drank, and for the beer the two Shore Patrol drank at the bar. They even paid for all the beer cans they threw at the Shore Patrol when they had tried to rush the place after the first two had disappeared inside. Really, they had not broken all that much, considering. All three bartenders were still behind the bar. They were fine. Well tipped even.

I guessed that getting drunk on duty reduced the effectiveness of the two Shore Patrol as witnesses against my guys. Anyway, no charges were ever filed. While I did not know that when I saw that white truck, that part ultimately worked out better than anybody could have anticipated.

Sometimes you just have to be lucky. It is the only thing that will work.

We were on the USNS William Weigel, an old troop carrier on her final voyage, top speed twenty one knots or about twenty four MPH, 622 feet long, 75 feet wide, the USNS Weigel had lumbered as she departed US Army Oakland California Terminal on 3 October 1967 loaded with elements of the 324th Signal Brigade, the 3rd Battalion (Abn) 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, the 3rd Battalion (Abn) 503rd Infantry, initially assigned for training purposes to the 82d Airborne Division, reassigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) for fighting purposes in Vietnam, and the 201st Assault Helicopter Company from Ft. Bragg, NC, and a few more. All of us were headed to Vietnam as fast as the USNS Weigel could get us there.

usns_general_william_weigel_t-ap-119

File photo

The USNS Weigel was originally supposed to stop at Okinawa, but engine trouble had us putting in for two days of repairs at the naval base in Subic Bay, the Philippines instead. We arrived one afternoon, spent two full days there and then left the next morning, early.

weigel

Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506 (Airborne) PIO

I was the Provost Marshall, or head cop, on the ship. I was responsible for maintaining order, for posting man overboard guards when underway and for running the Brig or jail on the ship. At sea that meant that I posted guards throughout the ship and maintained a duty roster of the Officer of the Guard and Sergeant of the Guard for each day. Since I was from the 3/506th, my deputy, a Sergeant First Class who also led the Response Group, was from the other airborne battalion on board, the 3/503rd.

A couple of days before we got there, I had been warned by the ship’s Troop Commander, Major George E. Fisher, Jr., that we would dock in Subic Bay Naval Base to repair the ship’s engine. He told me that there would be some form of liberty for all the men on board, and to prepare a plan. How bad could it be I had thought as I walked back to my office from our meeting?

Liberty in the Philippines. That sounded like a lot of fun to me. After three weeks on that old ship, I was looking forward to it.

So far being the ship’s head cop had been fairly easy, except that I rarely got to sleep much at night since the Officers of the Guard routinely got lost at night checking on the various guard posts throughout the ship. Of course, getting lost  was not unusual for second lieutenants.  Unfortunately, since below decks on the ship everything looked the same, they got lost often.

While it was always disagreeable to be awakened from a sound sleep sometimes where we found the lieutenants was so remarkable that it almost made it worth it. In any event, I was required to know if they were lost somewhere in the ship, or if they had fallen overboard. So far nobody had fallen overboard, but I really worried about some of those lieutenants, especially when they were walking around the ship at night, alone. At least they didn’t have a map or a compass or we might have never found them.

Each time they lost one, the Sergeant of the Guard was required to wake me up and tell me. Particularly at first it happened at least twice every night, sometimes more often. It actually would have been easier for me to just check the guard positions myself at night, but that was not the way the Army worked.

My Sergeant assistant from the 503rd was extraordinary.* He had been in the Army fifteen years, all of it as an airborne infantryman, but he also knew paperwork. Since we were actually in a shooting war at the time, paperwork was not something that Infantry OCS (Officer Candidate School) at Ft. Benning had spent much time on.

The one thing that I did know for certain was that was that as Provost Marshall I was personally responsible for the Brig, or ship’s jail. Screwing that up could put me in prison. Ft. Leavenworth Prison to be exact.

The 503rd had waited for the boat ride to Vietnam to catch up on a lot of Article 15’s (Army speak for non-judicial punishment) and summary courts martial, so the Brig was full most of the way across the Pacific. My sergeant from the 503rd was the one that noticed that the paper work of his own battalion was not correct.

We had made a deal the first day, I would deliver any bad news to his battalion commander and he did the same for mine. So, one day out from Oakland, I took eleven smiling miscreants back to the 503rd’s battalion commander and told him that the paperwork needed to be redone because I was letting them go. He was not happy.

He informed me that he out ranked me. I immediately agreed that he was absolutely correct. However, I politely suggested that we could talk to Major Fisher, the troop commander on the ship, if he wished. He decided that he wished to redo the paper work instead. Smart man.

That, a little gambling and the disappearing lieutenants were the biggest problems that we had faced so far. That all changed when we got to the Philippines.

There were a little over 2,800 soldiers on board. All of them were on their way to a combat zone.  Almost 1,700 of these soldiers were in two battalions of Airborne paratroopers that had just completed a rigorous six month training regimen to prepare them for combat. For six months they had done nothing except learn and then practice over and over, various ways to maim, disable and kill someone else, but they had not been allowed to actually put those skills to use yet. 

When we arrived in Subic Bay we had all been on the USNS Weigel for about three very long, very boring weeks. As I thought more about it, the idea of of turning them loose anywhere but into a war zone seemed to me to be the absolute quickest form of career suicide that I had ever heard of. Particularly if you added alcohol to the mix, and of course alcohol would be a big part of that mix.

I went down into the ship to find my company commander, Tom Gaffney. Tom had been a Sergeant Major in the Green Berets and about to retire when he was offered the chance to retire out as a Captain if he would agree to stay in another year to help train an airborne rifle company and then take them to Vietnam. While the war was heating up in early 1967, it was still fairly low key but building up steadily to what it would become in 1968. Tom had already been there twice with the Green Berets. So, he said yes to the offer. As far as I could tell, Tom knew everything worth knowing about the Army.

What he told me was helpful I guess, but it did not allay my fears at all. The real place we were probably going to according to Tom was Olongapo, a Philippine town just out side the gates of the Subic Bay, Naval Base.

Olongapo, Tom said, would be our introduction to the Third World.

According to Tom, Olongapo was only a sort of town in the Philippines. It was really only there because something had to be just outside the gates to the United States Navy’s, huge Subic Bay, Naval Base. That something was Olongapo.

In late 1967 Olongapo was composed mostly of bars and whorehouses. All of the whorehouses had their own bars and all of the bars had their own whorehouses, or at least they all had rooms upstairs and bar girls that you could rent along with a room by the hour, or for the night if you were ambitious and feeling flush. 

As far as we could see, Olongapo was one long muddy street of mostly wooden buildings, with a money-changing kiosk right in the middle of the street just after you left the base. Then, the bars and whorehouses started on both sides of the street. It was hard for me to tell the two apart, but they insisted that there was a difference.

According to Tom, during the Korean War when he had been in the 187th Infantry (Abn.) Regiment (aka Rakkasans), after a similar period of training at Ft. Campbell, they too had stopped in Olongapo on their way to the Korean War. It had led to a riot of epic proportions. Tom smiled broadly when he told me about that riot. I knew that smile. While it was a happy smile, there was a lot more to it than that and it did nothing for my mood. I went back to my office not at all comforted by what I had learned.

We let the officers and senior NCOs go into of the town Olongapo, the rest of the enlisted men were restricted to the Subic Bay, Naval Base.  Besides several enlisted and NCO clubs, the Naval Base also had several chapels, and a base library. While the later two received some use as well, it was beer, lots of beer that was the goal of most of the men. They all succeeded in achieving their goals.

When they returned to the pier getting them back on board ship was more like herding stoned cattle than moving elite troops around. Some needed to be assisted in walking. Some were missing parts of their uniform, or had made unauthorized additions from someone else’s uniform. Some had minor abrasions that according to them, all came from falling down some stairs, located somewhere on the flat as a board base. Some seemed to be escorted back by, or were closely followed by, groups of Shore Patrol. However, as long as they were peaceful and kept moving, we ignored almost everything.

Both days I had twenty sergeants on the pier. Ten from each airborne unit and they worked in pairs. Most of the men were happy drunks, very happy, and almost all of them were also very drunk.

6710719sJWB-Shore leave su

Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506 (Airborne) PIO

We let half the men off the ship the first full day in port and the other half the second day.  Then we left the next morning early. The real trouble was all on the second day. First it was that EM Club, then there was that white pick up truck.

As the white pick up truck drove along the pier, it picked up a little speed but it was still weaving erratically. I ran down the gangway as fast as my bandaged toes and flip flops would let me. About half way down the white truck passed the gangway I was on. I could see some men hanging on the roof of the wire cage behind the cab and there appeared to be some more men inside the cage as well. The ones on top were laughing and throwing beer cans as they went. The beer cans they threw appeared to be empty as they bounced along behind the truck.

It looked to me like the truck was heading straight for Subic Bay. I already knew that there were sharks in Subic Bay. Lots of sharks according to the Navy. We had been told that a naval rating chipping paint on the side of a ship in the harbor had lost a foot to one the week before we got there. On our first day in port several guys had decided to “fall” off the ship into the water. One of them had fallen into a remarkably good swan dive.

I never saw those USNS sailors work so fast to get a boat in the water to pick them up. They were dead serious about it. I began to believe the story about the shark and the sailor’s former foot.

The guys that “fell” off the boat stayed in the brig the rest of our time in port. The threat of missing liberty had cured that problem, but I had no ideas at all about how to fix that weaving white truck.

 Instead of flying off the pier, the truck ran into one of the big concrete and steel stanchions, or more correctly a bollard that the Navy used to tie up the big ships to the pier. As soon as the truck stopped, everybody piled out of it and off the top of the cage in back. It looked a lot like one of those clown cars in a circus act that more and more people kept leaving.

They were all laughing and some fell as they ran toward the ship’s rear gangway. There were two ways into the ship, two gangways, one in front where I had been and one at the rear of the ship. The last of them  made the turn for that rear gangway just before I got there.

Since I did not know the condition of the truck or if anybody was still in it, I kept going to the truck. Inside the cage, there were four, almost naked, beer soaked, very angry men. They still had their boxer shorts, their tee shirts and their boots, but the rest of their uniforms and equipment were somebody’s souvenirs.

Since the cage itself was locked, I was really glad that it had not been driven off the end of the pier. They would never have gotten out of that cage. Not much blood that I could see though the wire. I thought that was another good sign.

I went around to the cab and there piled on the seat were four equipment belts, a Master at Arms badge on a white lanyard, two handheld radios and four wallets. The keys to the truck and the cage were in the ignition. They had purposefully left everything that would have gotten the Shore Patrol guys in big trouble if they had lost them, and then stolen everything else.

My guys, I was actually proud of them.

The rest of their stuff was now souvenirs.  I knew that the Shore Patrol arm bands were particularly prized as souvenirs. They were hard to get, those guys were tough.

I had just taken all this in and was letting the Shore Patrol guys out of the cage when I heard a siren and looked up to see a jeep and a sedan that were tearing down the pier toward me. Inside the sedan sitting shotgun was that second Lieutenant Commander that I had already met at the EM Club earlier that day. Even in the weird light on the pier I could see that his face was bright red.

However, he no longer wanted to talk to me. He wanted the Troop Commander on the ship and he wanted him right now. It seemed that the Admiral wanted to talk to him. That sounded fine to me.

After all, it could have been a whole lot worse—the Admiral could have wanted to talk to me.

In the real world, there are some really great things about being a Second Lieutenant; one of the absolute best is that you cannot be the troop commander of a ship load of young men docked in Subic Bay. Being a “Butter” bar had saved me again.

After they left in the sedan, I waited on the pier for Major Fisher, picking up and throwing away empty beer cans to pass the time. There were a surprising number of them still on the pier. The major was white faced when the sedan brought him back, followed by a truck load of Shore Patrol. Other than smartly returning my salute with the battalion’s reply of “Airborne!” Major Fisher did not say much when he got back. He just went up the gangway and then straight to his cabin.

The Shore Patrol on the other hand, sealed the ship, and the pier. Except for running into the tag end of a Typhoon, the rest of the trip to Vietnam was uneventful, beautiful even, as soon as they rid the ship of the smell of all that upchuck. That stuff was slippery too. You would not believe how much one man, even a little guy, can throw up until you have been on a troop ship with him riding on the tag end of a Pacific Ocean typhoon. To avoid the upchuck, some guys spent most of their time on the bow getting doused as it bulled its way through the biggest waves I had ever seen.

We arrived at the port of Qui Nhon in Vietnam in darkness. I could see a plane over the perimeter in the distance. Suddenly it spurted a stream of bright, red fire from its side. A little later came a sound much like that of a very long, very loud, possibly PBR induced, belch. Spooky, a C-47 gun ship, had given us its own version of, “Welcome to Vietnam.” I came to love those planes, but that is another story, for another time.

After disembarking the 503rd at Qui Nhon the next day on 23 October 1967 we continued down the coast of Vietnam to Cam Ranh Bay. The USNS Weigel made three stops on the coast of Vietnam with her final stop being at Vung Tau near Saigon. We got off at Cam Ranh Bay and then rode in a truck convoy to Phan Rang, home of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and our final stop on our way to the Vietnam War.

6710725bJWB-Co. A

That’s Capt. Tom Gaffney calling his own cadence on the right. Sgt. McDaniel has the Guidon flag in front. Lt. James Schlax on the right (WIA 2/19/68), and Sgt Carl Ratee on the left (KIA 2/19/68) leading 1st Platoon, Company A, 3rd Battalion (Airborne) 506th Infantry Regiment ashore from the pier at Cam Ranh Bay. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506 (Airborne) PIO

They probably should have brought us back from Viet Nam on a ship too.  It would have been useful both psychologically and physically, but they would not have been able to let it stop in Olongapo — according to Major Fisher, we were forever barred from returning by the Admiral that ran the place. It was about the only thing that the Major ever told us about his meeting with the Admiral. He indicated though that the Admiral had been absolutely unmistakable on that point. 

So now, when I think about Olongapo, I smile. I smile broadly, exactly like Tom Gaffney had smiled. Our short time there is one of my favorite memories from my service in the Army.


  • Unfortunately after 50 years I cannot remember the sergeant’s name. He was a good man. I hope he made it home. Like all good sergeants, he kept his officer, me, mostly out of trouble.

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How To Hide Behind a Pebble

How To Hide Behind a Pebble*

by john harrison

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

6802861 - Feb 2 Pinned Down on Levy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SONY DSC

Pebbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Time America Forgot

The Time America Forgot

by: john harrison

Finally my war was over. That plane was so quiet on takeoff, but when those wheels came up, pandemonium reigned. I’ve been in firefights that weren’t as loud. Then, that 7-0-quick, freedom bird, flew us home.

Harrison resting

This was a great day. I am Infantry, but I am sitting down. My rifle and my radio are in easy reach. I am in a war zone, but no one is shooting at me. Life was good, but it was also a very unusual day for us. 

Everyone that was there has their own story of what it was like to return to America from the Vietnam War. But, the big thing is, one minute you are there, in country and then suddenly, you are home. Or, at least in California, and on the way. There was no transition, no time for decompression at all, and usually all of the people you came home with on the plane were strangers.

After my tour I came back in late 1968. I flew into San Francisco, caught a ride from the military airport to the spectacular Mark Hopkins Hotel sitting magnificently on top of a hill overlooking downtown San Francisco and the Bay beyond. That was where my Uncle John picked me up. I was standing there in front of the hotel in full dress khaki uniform, brand new ribbons pinned to my chest and all, but I had been sitting on a plane for about sixteen hours and I looked like it.

No one spit on me, but no one said, “Welcome home” until my Uncle said it, and then he hugged me. I don’t remember him ever doing that before, or since.

Pretty much everybody else had completely ignored me standing there in front of one of the finest and busiest hotels in America in my still shiny, black Corcoran jump boots, with a hard to miss, powder blue infantry cord, and then a big, bright Combat Infantry Badge over three rows of colorful ribbons pinned above silver Airborne wings. They all really stood out on those rumpled dress khakis. There was also a big, stuffed, Army OD green, overseas service, duffle bag sitting there right beside me on the curb.

However, as far as being noticed by the people of San Francisco, I could have been a tree, but I had a big smile on my face. I was really glad to see me back home in America, even if no one else seemed to notice, much less care. I was home!

According to my Uncle everything was fine until after dinner that night when I leaned back in my chair and it just kept going until I hit the floor. It might have been jet lag, but I think it was more likely related to the impressive amount of Jack Daniels, sour mash, whiskey, that I had consumed before, during and after dinner.

That was also my Uncle’s guess. He and my cousin Nancy put me to bed. It was the first time that I had slept between real sheets in about a year, but unfortunately I was way too drunk to notice.

While I had only been gone one year many things, some very important to a young man, seemed to have changed in America during that year. Now, after some bra burning that I had missed, women suddenly had nipples poking out, one on each side of their chest, and, with their girdles gone as well, they now had two round buttocks instead of just one large one. It was all quite startling for a young man fresh from a war zone.

I no longer knew what the rules were. I did not know whether I was supposed to notice these changes, or not. I wanted to act correctly, and to throughly explore both topics, but that would have to wait until I got home to Washington, D.C. First though, I felt a real need to reconnect with both my extended family, and my country.

I was back, and I needed to see them both. San Francisco was only the first stop on my return tour through America and my family that I had very carefully planned as my trip home from war.

My Uncle John was by then a Navy Captain and was the director of NCIS. I called him “Spy” because he had actually been one in Turkey right after World War II. He was working on his third war as a naval officer.

He invited me to lunch the day after I got back. I had a real hangover from all of that Jack Daniels, but I joined him at the Condor Club in North Beach. My aunt dropped me off at the door to meet him there. She was smiling, but she did not come in.

We were met at the door by a very pretty young lady about my age who was topless, and who was wearing the shortest, black leather, miniskirt I have ever seen. I got a good look at her face because I was trying very hard not to stare at her exposed breasts.  However, I did notice that she had nipples. Two of them. One on each side. I counted them carefully as I ignored them completely.

I did not know what to say:

“Nice skirt.” seemed forced, given the circumstances.

“Neat nips.” seemed flippant, and perhaps too personal as well?

So, I did not say anything. She smiled at me. She seemed truly glad to see me. While I was wearing civvies, clearly out of date style wise, as well as being rumpled from being stuffed in that  Army OD green, duffle bag, neither seemed to bother her. Nor did my very short, also very out of style, Army haircut.

She was the very first person that I met in America, other than my family, that had showed any interest in me as a person. I liked her immediately.

As we were seated at a small round table inside the club, Carol Doda descended to the stage on top of a brilliant white grand piano. You could say that she was wearing the piano since, other than a small black sequined G-string, that was all she was wearing. This was not a strip joint—they appeared stripped. Her two huge breasts were already famous as the “Twin Peaks”, or “Twin 44’s” of San Francisco, but I actually preferred the smaller ones on the young lady that had greeted us at the door.

During that long, liquid lunch with my uncle I found out that the “hair of the dog” does indeed work. Although that first drink goes down a lot more like medicine than like a proper drink would. On the other hand, the second drink and those that follow are, fine.

We were served by another young lady who I noticed immediately was also topless. Her’s split the difference between Carol Doda’s and the young lady’s at the door, and like her pert, blond pony tail, bounced a little as she moved. I liked our waitress too.

She was also dressed in an equally short black leather miniskirt. Just like the girl at the front door. That completely improbable black leather skirt was their uniform I finally figured out. It was also, all of their uniform. I thought that it was a real improvement over the Army’s shapeless uniforms that I was more used to, but I doubted that the Pentagon would ever approve such a change.

Several times as we sat there drinking quality American whiskey, in short, thick American glasses with lots of American ice, I noticed that my face actually hurt from smiling so much. Really, the muscles in my face hurt. I have never felt that before, or since. 

There were several waitresses moving around the room serving drinks mostly and as I watched them I tried to get that big smile off of my face. I tried to relax my face, but it would not relax. I was so glad to be home and it was so much fun each time to order more booze from our ever more beautiful waitress. We took a cab home, I think.

After a few days with Spy and family in San Francisco, I went to LA to see my Aunt Elizabeth. I took the train down the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It is a spectacular way to travel the West Coast. I had bought some new civilian clothes from the Presidio PX with Spy. So other than my short, obviously military, hair, I no longer looked so out of place sitting in the observation car, drinking alone, with only my  big, stuffed, duffle bag sitting on the seat beside me to keep me company.

The bartender on the train was a man. So it was not as much fun to order as it had been at the Condor Club, but I overcame that and noticed that he had a delightfully heavy hand with the whiskey. He was the only person I spoke to on the train but then, other than ordering a drink or three, we did not speak.

Then it was on to Dallas, Texas to see my father and the Texas side of the family. No “welcome homes” so far anywhere, except from family. I was still carrying that big, Army OD green, overstuffed, duffle bag whenever I travelled, but both it and I were apparently invisible to everybody we met.

In addition, other than one time, there was no interest from anybody, including family, about what had happened in Vietnam, or what I had done there, or what was still going on there. Silence ruled.

Nor were there any more topless bars. While well covered nipples were in evidence everywhere, I think air conditioning helped that, evidently topless bars were a San Francisco thing. I regretted that, but I continued to drink whenever it was offered, and it was offered regularly. So, I was still smiling.

When we visited my father’s job in Dallas we learned that the son of an associate that worked there with him had been killed in Vietnam the day before I visited. So that part of the visit was quiet. No smiling. However, other than with my family, that was the only time that even the word “Vietnam” came up from people that I met during my extended trip home.

Finally, it was on to DC and home. I was surprised when I got home a little after lunch that day to find the front door of our house was locked. In all the time that we had lived there the front door had only been locked after the last person came in at night and when we were out of town. The back door to our house had never been locked—nobody ever had a key to the old fashioned lock on that door.

Now there were heavy locks and bolts on every door into the house. There had been riots in DC and many other cities after Dr. Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis while I was in Vietnam. Then, in Los Angeles Senator Bobby Kennedy had also been murdered while I was gone. So now we locked all our doors at night, and during the day as well.

One of the first things my mother did was to give me the two keys that I needed to open the front door of our home. Having a key felt so strange. Before I went to Vietnam, I had never needed, nor had a key to our home.

She also gave me back a .22 caliber rifle of mine she had taken out during the riots and loaded, but did not know how to unload. She thought you had to shoot it to unload it and she did not want to do that in the house. Even after I explained the process, she told me to take it outside to unload it.

That first night my Mother told me about a couple of friends that had died in Vietnam while I was there. One of them, a Marine named Tom Fleming, had been a very close friend. He had been killed by a mortar round. My brother said his casket was very light. They had decided not to tell me about Tom and the others until I returned.

Like several of my friends, our family dog had also died while I was in Vietnam. They did not tell me that either until I got home. I missed that dog. I had really been looking forward to seeing her again. Her name was Penny. She was a beautiful, pure bred, collie. Actually she was my little sister’s collie, but she was our dog and now she was gone too.

I was beginning to feel as though it was dangerous to ask questions about what had happened at home while I was gone. There was no good news.

Stranger still though, other than just once, and telling me about my friends’ deaths, nobody talked about Vietnam. It was on the news every night, but nobody talked about it. Other than my closest family and then only when we first met, nobody seemed to care that I had just returned from a war zone, from a still very active war zone where Americans were killing and dying everyday. But nobody seemed to care.

However, even in the family all was not entirely well about my tour in Vietnam. One time, I was asked by one relative when I first saw her:

“So, how many people did you kill?”

I guess I should have been angry, or insulted, or something, but it was the first real question about the war, about my war, and as it turned out; it was also the only question from anybody about what I had actually done while I was in Vietnam. While I was there, fighting for them. So, I answered it as honestly as I could:

“More of them than they did of me.”

But now I am not so sure that is true. With Agent Orange waiting in the shadows and killing more every year, with flashbacks and demons in the dark of night, I am not even sure sometimes that the war is over.

After I got back I made two promises to myself. I vowed, never again. Pregnant women and little children would go before I would fight for these people again. Next time, if there ever was a next time, I would only fight for myself and my family if I fought at all, and I would vote in every election. I’ve kept both promises.

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

On Going To War

On Going To War

by: john harrison

Several of my former students at Bishop O’Connell High School have asked me about serving in the military. In particular the ones that are soon to be commissioned, but also some now already in the service want to know more about my experience with  leading men in combat who in many cases are much older than they are, and are certainly much more experienced than they are. Understandably, the ones headed to Iraq or Afghanistan are always very concerned about how they will react to combat, to battle. This is what I have told them.

I was commissioned at 20 years old. My Platoon Sergeant, Jim Bunn, was 34 at the time. Not only did he have many years of experience in the Army, he had already been to Vietnam. How then do you become the “leader” of such men?

It gets worse, while I had completed a year and a half of college. One of the men in my platoon, a Specialist 4, had two masters degrees. While that is not as likely in today’s all volunteer Army, you will still constantly have people serving under you who are smarter than you are, and who know more about what they are doing than you do. How do you deal with that and remain the leader?

What I had was years of study of military history and even more important I had Officer Candidate School or OCS. I was also very lucky in the men around me, both above me and below, and in the Army’s system of command. One of the things that you will realize very quickly as a junior officer is that in spite of ignorance in some areas, there are still many things that you know that no one else in the platoon knows no matter what their experience or age. More important, you are their platoon leader, and this makes all the difference. 

While it is the real job of a platoon sergeant to train his platoon leader without the platoon leader knowing, that does not mean he knows everything. The platoon sergeant may never have actually called in an airstrike, or artillery, or dust-off. He may know a lot about how to make C-Rations (MRE’s ancestor) palatable in the field, or how to motivate young men, but he may never have had a chance to research a subject overnight sufficient to give a good class on it the next day and about lots of other things that a platoon leader must be able to do.

There are all sorts of parts to the job of being a good platoon leader. At first there are some you will be good at and some you will suck at. However, it is still without question, the all-time, best job I have ever had, 2nd Lieutenant, Infantry, Platoon Leader.

You are expected to make mistakes, but your men, and in particular your platoon sergeant want you to be good at your job. They want to laugh at the other guy’s lieutenant, not their lieutenant. In a good platoon they will help you, they will also try to hide your mistakes from those above, and you will make a lot of mistakes. If you listen, particularly to your platoon sergeant, they will help you to act correctly, but the decisions and the responsibility for those decisions will always be yours.

I was very lucky. My first battalion commander, Col. John P. Geraci, was good enough to be recently enshrined in the Ranger Hall of Fame, my first First Sergeant, MSg Theron “Bull” Gergen was already a celebrity in the world of Rangers when I met him and was one of the first enshrined there. Cap. Thomas Gaffney was my first CO, but it was his second war. I had competence and hard won experience all around me. As I said my Platoon Sergeant, Jim Bunn had only recently returned from Vietnam when he joined the platoon. You may have to search for it, but real experience is available if you look.

However, you still need to be careful because some people seem to feel feel that they are building themselves up when they are tearing others down.  While only a moron would believe that this is true, or useful, these people exist in every service. They are the beetles of doubt. Avoid them. 

Hazing for example does not prove you are tough, it proves that you are undisciplined.  Any officer or NCO that lets himself or the men under his command be hazed should be fired, plain and simple.  If I saw it. I would relieve the officer or NCO on the spot, and so would any competent officer.  Why, because hazing has nothing to do with making people better. It has everything to do with allowing some people to feel superior by abusing their authority.  Those kinds of people should not have authority.

Multiple tours proves nothing.  Assuming they are trained, the best soldiers in history were generally pretty good the first time they fought and got better thereafter.  But, everyone has a limit, too.  If you go to war often enough, you will be killed, and over time when men recognize this, it changes them. In any event what did they do during those tours? What happened during those tours? What did they experience, besides just being there?

Even participation in a big battle prove nothing.  As far as the individual infantryman is concerned, a big battle is when they individually have to fight as hard as they can to stay alive.  A squad can undergo as much or more in a single squad action as they would in a big battle that perhaps makes the history books, or the evening news.  In any event, a squad in a big battle might be pulling the shit burning detail the whole time.  While they would know a lot about burning shit, their actual knowledge of battle would be limited. What did they do in that battle? How is it relevant now?

That said, everyone needs to be shot at the first time and they are different thereafter because then they are a veteran.  They know something about them self that others do not know about themselves. When I say shot at, I mean exactly that, not riding around in a truck when a bomb goes off, or sitting in a bunker at a base camp under attack, but out in the field in a combat infantry platoon, or tank squadron fighting an enemy that is trying to kill you, and that is pretty good at it. Then you are a real combat veteran. It is your reaction to the enemy fire that is important, not so much the fire itself. 

The stuff I have read about actions Iraq and Afghanistan, leads me to believe that very few of those who have served in these regions are actually what I would call “combat veterans”.  But, that was also true of Vietnam and every other American war.  There were less than 60,000 trigger pullers in Vietnam when there were over 550,000 troops there.  Probably about 90% of the jobs are still held by REMFs. 

We need the people in the rear, so while I have pulled their chain, I am not really deprecating them, but they are not infantry/tanker/artillery veterans no matter what their MOS.  No matter how many tours they served unless it was in a unit that actually fought the enemy they are not combat veterans. It is doing an infantryman’s job under fire, not just being under fire, that is important.

Anyone in the military who has not been in actual combat wonders how they will react when the bullets fly.  Unfortunately, there is only one way to find out.  Generally after the first jitters are over the problem is not a lack of courage, but actually an excess of bravery.  It needs to be tempered.  Green troops often take too many risks and thereby suffer too many casualties. 

One of the things I was always proud of was that while my platoon suffered a lot of casualties, they were spread over multiple actions over several months.  We did not do stupid, we killed the right people and in general did not allow them to kill us. 

In a sense combat is very much like basketball in that it is a team sport.  Anybody not working on building the team, making the team better has no place in the military.  Anybody who is putting down a fellow soldier, rather than sharing hard earned experience probably has little real experience to share and is not a real soldier however many tours they may have.

It is not how many doors did they kick down, but how many doors did they kick down that had an enemy inside with a machine gun pointed at the door. What did they do then? What did the man covering the entry do? Those are the real questions.

As far as how good is the Army of today, I do not know, but I would be very surprised if they are not better than in Vietnam and WW II if only because they are much better educated.   For example, less than half of the Marines in WW II had a high school degree now almost all do. Education does make a difference.

While being an “infantryman” is easy, being a good infantryman that can go upon today’s very lethal battlefields with a reasonable expectation of both accomplishing your mission and coming back is a rather more difficult proposition. It takes brains. It takes the ability to learn and apply skills that many times you do not even know you have. It takes courage, both the courage to act and the courage not to act even though you may know down deep in you soul that all you want in the world right then is to be able to do one thing, just one thing. However, you do not do that one thing, you do what you are supposed to do instead. When you have done that, you are a combat Infantryman.   

Being really good Infantry is a learned skill.  It is not easy. It is not simple.  It is not just issuing a guy a rifle and expecting them to know what they are doing.  There are a lot of little things that make the difference between living and dying. If you do not know those little things and do not do them almost as second nature then you are not very likely to survive. It is really that simple.

Audi Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II was a farm boy. As was Medal of Honor winning Sgt. Alvin York from World War I. In training, the Army only spends relatively a few hours on the rifle range and shoots relatively a few rounds. In the past America was famous for fielding armies of men that could shoot and shoot well. However, that was mostly because they brought that skill with them to the service.

My brother is a former Marine and an excellent pistol shot. He says that it takes about 5,000 rounds to make a really good pistol shot. It is not likely that you will have the opportunity to shoot that much in the military. In addition, today with the demonization of guns in America very few have had any experience with guns when they enter the service. You will not be getting a platoon full of Alvin Yorks and Audi Murphys. Most of them will not be able to shoot that well at first, and some may even be afraid of the weapon that they carry. That could get them, and you killed.

If you are going to teach other men how to shoot, you need to know yourself. Volunteer for range duty every chance you get. Hang out with people that know how to shoot. It may literally save your life and the lives of men in your platoon. Go to the range. Shoot. Listen. Learn. Practice. Shoot.

The next point is a little more difficult but no less important. While it is necessary to be able to hit a target, it is even more necessary to identify that target first. Both Murphy and York were boyhood hunters. You cannot buy that experience; you cannot even train it; you must experience it and that takes time. Make the time.

Whenever I walk outside to this day, I look for good machine-gun positions, good sniper positions. I look for places I would hide, or I would hide my platoon even though I have not led a platoon in 50 years. However, if you have ever been shot at in the military you will do it too, and you will do it for the rest of your life. Strangely, my wife Sandy, who has never hunted, sees far more than I do when we walk in the woods, so it is a talent as well as a craft that can be practiced. Either way, practice it. You will be surprised at what you see, at how much better you get.

I always felt that I was extraordinarily lucky in the Army.  My battalion trained together as a unit for 6 months before we deployed.  The battalion CO, Col. Geraci, was a Marine in World War II, an Army platoon leader in in Korea, and had already served two tours in Special Forces A teams in Vietnam before he was our commander.  My company commander, Cap. Gaffney, had earned a battlefield commission in Korea, was riffed back to sergeant, made Sergeant Major in Special Forces, served in “A” Teams in Vietnam, and then came back as a Captain to take us to Vietnam. I have already mentioned our First Sergeant, Bull Gergen and my Platoon Sergeant Jim Bunn. These were all men that you could learn from.

And when we were done training, I thought we could kick anybody’s ass which is probably why I once attacked a Mainforce VC battalion with my platoon. Kicked their asses too even though we could not destroy them. Too many to kill, although we and the United States Air Force did our level best all day one day trying to kill them all.

You are not really feeling inadequate if you feel doubt about your ability to fit in to this life.  You are feeling being untested, and you will feel that way until you are shot at doing your job.  It is an essential part of the job. And, while you are correct now that you are untested, after that you will be a veteran, a combat veteran.

I think that the most important thing that I could tell you is to be prepared to improvise. We spent almost all of our time training on how to patrol, on doing ambushes and counter ambush drills, and most of all on how to fight in the jungle. However, we spent almost all of our time actually fighting, doing it in the cities during Tet ‘68. The two have little in common.

Nobody in the battalion had ever done what the Army called then, Fighting In a Built-up Area. Nobody in the battalion was an expert at it when we first did it. I actually used more ideas that I got from watching Victory At Sea and other WW II documentaries as a kid than I did from my Army training. The one thing I learned is that if it works, it is not a stupid idea. In Vietnam we used to take our helmets off, hold them up and move them around for the enemy to shoot at so we could find out where they were hiding. It worked, because unlike us, they had not watched hours of cowboy shows and war movies. If it works, do it, then do it again.

As I said, the best job I have ever had in my life was that of being a second lieutenant, infantry, platoon leader. Best job by far. In that I envy you.  Good luck.

The Morning After, The Night Before

The Morning After,
The Night Before

by: john harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vietnam_War_Artillery

File Photo

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

Good morning Vietnam!

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

Steel rain—how do you like it now?

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

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

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

bunn

Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

Author’s Note

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