The Boys of Battery B
James (Joe) Mullins
Gun Crew Chief
His name is James, but he goes by Joe. He still lives in southwestern Virginia near where he grew up, in the heart of the Appalachian hills and close enough to spit into Kentucky. He was only twenty years old when he went to Vietnam. He spent over a year and a half with B Battery, working his way from private to sergeant. He was the crew chief on a gun with BUSHWHACKER stenciled on the barrel, following the artillery tradition of beginning the name with the letter of the battery.
Ring Finger Purple Heart
He was in my gun section and I think he was from Texas. He was real young, maybe 17 years old. In my picture he’s the one on the right.
“First tell me about the Mohawks.”
Not much to tell. Three of them decided one day, and what one of them done the other one done. Those were the only three that I remember.
Anyway, we was in the hooch and getting ready to load up on the back of a truck. He has his rifle leaned up against the railing of his bed. When he jumped down the barrel was just about even with where he stuck his hand, and his ring slipped over one of them fire suppressors (three pronged device on the end of an M16). His finger was just barely hangin’ on when he got down to the ground, and he is screaming. They sent him back to the rear area to get fixed up. The best I remember they saved his finger.
Here Captain Marchesseault picks up the story.
After they sewed him up he came back to me saying, “There was some officer came through the hospital just pinning Purple Hearts on everybody. They gave one to me but I didn’t want it. Somebody told me to shut up and accept it.”
I said to him, “Good. Keep it. Tell your grandkids the story of how you got it.”
Mullins soon discovered the story he was really telling.
He’d been up on guard duty that day and I had to relieve him for the night watch. I was still a private then so I had to pull guard duty. I got to the bunker before dark and I seen all these wadded up pieces of paper laying there. I didn’t have nothin’ to do so I just started to open one up and see what somebody was writing, what they’re saying to their girlfriend or whoever. And it was him writing. I can’t remember who he was writing to, but he told them he got a Purple Heart for having his finger shot off by the VC.
Waitin’ To Hurt
I ‘bout got shot by my own buddy, missed me by about a half inch. We was in a bunker one day. I think we was moving from north of Qui Nhon back to Tuy Hoa. We was in a bunker, knee to knee, and he was cleaning his rifle. He pulled the magazine out and raised that rifle up and had that sucker pointed at me. He done it real fast. There was a round in the chamber and that sucker went off and it just barely missed me. He’s waitin’ for me to fall over dead I reckon, and I’m waitin’ for it to hurt.
Somebody come and said, “Who fired that shot?” I covered for him and said, “Accident.” But that wasn’t too smart. You don’t point a gun at somebody when you’re clearin’ it.
Another Close Call
One night I was sleeping in the parapet by the gun, layin’ up against the sandbags in the wide open. I was so tired and wore out and just killed and laying on the ground.
I did not hear the first mortars come in. The other guys did. It’s good I didn’t, because if I’d a jumped up I could have got killed, because the last one hit straight across from where I was layin’. When it came down, all the stuff came down on top of me. It startled me real bad. That was the last one to hit, and I didn’t hear any of the others. Why? I was so tired and I guess it was just where I was used to the noise. You’re used to the BANG, BANG, BANG all night. I heard someone say they was hit. I went and check and two guys were hit, Thomas one of them. I always said war is strange. I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re either destined to die, or destined to live.
The mention of Thomas pulls forward another story.
Things started changing in the battery toward the end of my tour. The Black Power started and the Ku Klux Klan started, and we started having racial problems. Black and white, one just as guilty as the other. Seems like things was never as good as the cohesion that you needed.
It got real nasty. Thomas can tell you more about that because one of the tougher black guys said something to him and Thomas had him down and ‘bout choked him to death. James Thomas was a hoss, a tough nut. He was a college football player for Appalachia State and he held the school records for points scored in college and high school. He was triple A Virginia state wrestling champion. Me and two or three others finally got Thomas loose.
And I got in trouble for that. Somebody said I kicked him in the rear and I did not. I was not a racial type guy. The Ku Klux Klan and the Black Power, I didn’t like neither one of them. I had good black guys in my section, and they was always from the south. They was real good soldiers that I worked with. That black guy that Thomas choked was a good soldier Even after he still was a good soldier.
That night someone got hit over the head with a bottle as they were walking from one bunker to another. And that was not the worse part of it. While that was goin’ on here come a black guy with an M16, but we got it calmed down before any officer knew anything about it. I just tried to be fair when I was a sergeant and a corporal. That’s all I can say. I’m not sayin’ we was a bad outfit. That’s just a hard thing to deal with.
“Sometimes we forget how young we were over there.”
You got that exactly right. You take 90 to 100 men stuck in a barbed wire prison I call it. It was about like being in prison, to tell the truth about it. And you get on each other’s nerves.
James Thomas would leave Vietnam a sergeant, and with two Purple Hearts. He was wounded at LZ Betty and in a mortar attack at LZ Judy.
It was a good outfit, good guys went through there. And good captains and good lieutenants. I didn’t care much for one chief of smoke, a sergeant first class. I didn’t dislike him or hate him, just didn’t have a lot of respect. He never came around the section to ask if we needed anything, never asked is there anything I can do for you guys.
My gun in particular was moved a lot. I asked Capt. Marchesseault one time, I said, “I’m just curious. When ya’ll send a couple guns out, did you have any method or do you just send the worse crew you got?”
He said, “No, we send the best crew.” So he made me feel good. (laughs) … if he wasn’t lying.
Memories That Last
Lieutenant Higgins was one of our forward observers. Higgins was such a gentleman. I know he’s got one good story, if he’ll tell it. We were somewhere west of Phan Thiet by LZ Judy. We had made a move, don’t know if it was all the guns. The lieutenant was with a group of South Vietnamese as their forward observer. They got overrun and he had to call the artillery in on top of them. And we killed a bunch of them South Vietnamese that day with our artillery. They brought them in the compound and they just laid them around. They never covered them up. I went over and looked because I wanted to see what artillery done, and flies was all over. I thought we did not show a lot of respect. It bothered me a whole lot. I still think about it today. I can still see the bodies.
Today Joe’s memory of places and facts is beginning to dull, but still burning hot is his devotion to fellow veterans. He officiates at military funerals with the American Legion and VFW, testimony to the man the boy grew into.
We’ve had as many as 28 guys at a funeral. Now we’re lucky if we got 12 or 13. All the old timers is died off. I go to so many funerals I can’t tell you. I done three of ‘em last week. It’s tear’n me up. It just about kills me but somebody’s got to do it.
When I first started doing it I just held the flag (from the coffin), standing out of the way. Now I present the flag to whoever gets it, and it tears me up. It’s up close and personal now, when I stand and salute and I look at the wives and see the tears falling down and hittin’ that flag. Or when you start burying your friends.
We try to ease the family, make them feel more proud. I go to as many of the family members as I can. I always hug the wife, shake the son’s hand. I learn what her first name is. If everybody calls her something else like they do me (Joe, not Jim) that’s what I will call her. I’ll say, “Wife, Joan, on behalf of the United States government, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, we are proud to present you this flag which your husband so faithfully fought under and served.” I always reach down and hug them. I reckon everyone’s always accepted the hug. And I hug all the family members. We’re huggers down here. Then I go out and shake hands with as many people as I can.
They say, “We thank you.”
And I say, “It’s an honor.”