THE BOYS OF BATTERY B
George Moses spent 20 years in the Army, retiring with the rank of full colonel. The path he took took to becoming commander of Battery B is a story in itself.
I was 29 when I went to Vietnam, a little older than the average bear. I graduated from high school three years behind, only one of which was my own fault. I was an October baby, so my mother held me back one year to let me mature socially. Then I contracted polio as a kid and was treated during the school year, and had to repeat the year. I put myself even further behind during junior high in Germany, where my father was stationed. I would get five dollars to buy breakfast, lunch and dinner at the school cafeteria. I discovered that for a dollar I could buy four marks twenty from the cab drivers, which would buy a lot of wiener schnitzel and beer. My buddies and I would go to the mountains, to the guest houses and have a ball. We got a different kind of education, but also skipped a lot of school. Then when the jig was up I had to repeat that year too.
After that failed year in Germany I got smart and really hunkered down and made very good grades. I came from a lower middle class family in Lawton, Oklahoma and I knew my parents were not going to be able to send me to college. In the motion pictures I had seen clips of cadets throwing their hats in the air. I said why don’t I look into that. I realized all you got to do is apply, there’s nothing to lose. My sweetheart’s father was an attorney in town, and I had a lot of people writing letters for me. Senator Robert Kerr ended giving me his primary appointment to West Point.
I will always be grateful. That was a blessing to me and I did all I could to live up to his expectations of me while I was there. I was 21 when I entered West Point, as old as you could possibly be. You could not be over 25 to graduate, so you had to get in within four years of that limit. I came out in the upper third of the class. Worked my ass off. I found out while I was up there that we’re not all built the same between the ears. Some were built differently than I am. But by working hard you can make up that difference.
I immediately went to Ft. Sill for the basic course in artillery and became a beady-eyed forward observer, but the Army sent me to Germany to a missile unit. So I started taking correspondence courses to keep up with the field artillery because I didn’t want to leave that branch, and I hoped eventually to command a battery somewhere. After Germany I went to Ft. Benning GA – I thought I would be going to Vietnam, – and worked for an infantry lieutenant colonel, Bertam J. Bishop, who turned out to be an old war horse. I had the privilege of working for Lt. Col. Bishop for one year and then rotated out to Vietnam. The lessons I learned from Bishop helped me in Vietnam, in my whole 20 year military career, and I know now throughout life.
Bishop tried to recruit me into the infantry. I told him I was a trained artilleryman and wanted to command a battery. But no, I got assigned to headquarters at Nha Trang in an administrative job, a housekeeping job, and eight to five job, and I was really sick over it.
The night before I was to report for duty I was at the officer’s club setting at the bar having a beer. There was another captain there, a bright guy, with a Ph.D. He had served down at Ft. Bliss at one of those highly technical outfits at the Air Defense school where they studied strategy and weapon systems design. He had been there his whole career. He was assigned to the 5/27th artillery, which was exactly where I wanted to go. He was scared to death about going to a cannon battalion. He was not afraid of the danger so much as he just did not know anything about artillery.
I was full of piss and vinegar and said, “Listen man, I know all anybody needs to know about a cannon battery, but I detest being a headquarters company commander. Would you like that job?”
He said, “I’d love that job.”
I said, “Listen friend, we’re gonna make a deal. Let’s go see the Personnel Officer together tomorrow.” The next morning we pleaded our case, and he said, “Guys, I’m in agreement with you, but to make it happen for sure I need to check with some people.”
Well it worked out and we made the switch and I was so relieved. I was blessed to have that situation develop. I went to join Lieutenant Colonel Munnelly at the 5th/ 27th in Tuy Hoa. When Lt. Col. Munnelly asked me what I wanted to do I said, “Sir, I want to command one of your firing batteries.”
He said, “You think you can handle that?”
I said, “Sir, I know I can handle that.”
He said, “Well, right now I’m going to make you battalion motor officer.”
(Laughs) I didn’t say anything other than, “I’ll be the best one you ever had.”
I went to work and shortly Lt. Col. Munnelly came to me and said, “George, I’m going to put you in B Battery to take Captain Marchesseault’s place. I want you to take command on the 1st of July.” That made my day. I discovered through my career in the Army that if you want to command, if you want to progress, you got to seek it. You got to do all you can to make it happen. It just doesn’t happen. Everyone is seeking those command jobs. After you go to the basic course and they teach you that stuff, you want to go do it.
When I took command B Battery was outside Qui Nhon, about 80 miles north of Tuy Hoa, and it had been there a long time. The mess tent even had wooden floors. The battery had a daily routine going and I could tell there was a lot of spirit there. Everyone gladly did their work. There were details to be done every day, and they got it done. Setting that aside, after I was there awhile I noticed that in the FDC the fire commands were given rather loosely and the gunnery was sloppy. Some of the elements of the fire mission were out of order. Procedures were fraught with confusion, a real problem if we really got into a tough operation. During the change of command with Captain Marchesseault I asked him, “Paul, what do I need to know about?” He expressed to me exactly what I was seeing, that things were getting rusty.
When I served with Lieutenant Colonel Bishop, my commanding officer at Ft. Benning, I learned it was easier to be a hard ass and let up, than it was to be an easy commander and then become a hard ass. The latter way engenders a lot of resentment. One of the first things I did, after about two weeks, I went into the battery Fire Direction Center and I took out the FM 6-40, the artillery field gunnery manual, and I said, “Gentlemen, I want everything in this FDC to be done in accordance with this manual with regard to calls for fire, interactions with the forward observers and the manner in which commands are given to the guns. This manual is the evolution of decades and decades of artillery procedure, and this has been proven to be the best way of doing it. If you think you’ve got a better way you come talk to me, but until then this is what you operate by.” I did the same thing with the howitzer sections, I told them everything was to be done according to the book.
None of the howitzers had muzzle covers when I got there. A couple of them had a coffee can over the end of the muzzle. I said, “The reason you don’t have muzzle covers is you shoot ‘em off. The reason you shoot ‘em off is you don’t have the discipline that makes sure the first step in a fire mission is to take your muzzle cover off. That tells me there’s a lot of other things you may not be doing. I expect your service of the piece to be by the book.” I said to the section sergeants, “We don’t have a chief of firing battery, but we do have a battery exec, and I expect him to hold you accountable to execute service of the piece in accordance with the book. There may come a time when things are so hasty and so wild that you can’t quite do it in order to get the job done, but until then I expect to see you do it by the book.”
And they did. It wasn’t long before there were muzzle covers on every one of those howitzers. One morning I remember going out after a night of H&I and one of the howitzers did not have a muzzle cover on it. I went down and asked the section chief, I said, “Chief, where’s your muzzle cover?’
He just looked at me and said, “Sir, we don’t have one.”
I said, “You shot it off last night.”
He looked at me and he said, “Yes sir.”
I said, “Get another one, and don’t shoot it off.”
I watched everyone closely for about six weeks and corrected everything I could find, and boy they responded. The FDC got very sharp, and similarly with the service of the pieces. I was really proud of them. By the way, you’ll see in a lot of my pictures when those howitzers weren’t firing there were muzzle covers on the ends of those tubes.
The howitzers at that time had seen a lot of action and required maintenance that we could not do. For example the hand wheels had a lot of play in them, a repair that required a maintenance depot. There was a large quartermaster base inland from where we were and I sent the motor sergeant down there to see if we couldn’t talk them into taking our howitzers in one at a time and overhaul them. I didn’t like to tell everybody this, but I used to go into Qui Nhon to the PX and buy a couple bottles of bourbon. The motor sergeant would take them when he went over to the depot. I think that was the ticket to getting the howitzers overhauled. We rotated them all through there. It was a good thing we did, because getting the howitzers in first class condition and putting all our procedures in place later paid off in spades during an operation down south with the 173rd Airborne Infantry, the biggest and most demanding of my tour in Vietnam.
It was toward the end of July, just a few weeks into my command, about 10 at night. We heard a lot of small arms fire going on. The Korean mortar section started firing illumination rounds, and they couldn’t see anything, couldn’t find any targets. That small arms fire went on for about two hours that night. It was a great mystery. Finally the next morning I got ahold of Major Wright, the district advisor. It turned out that about 700 meters off to the right of the battery, looking to the north, there were two Vietnamese Army platoons. The officers of which were mad at each other and were shooting at each other. The platoon leader who started it was prosecuted and put in jail. That was an eye-opener for me. Their army was not as unified as we thought it was. I could not imagine that going on, but I’m sure it was not the only case where that happened. It turned out to be a personal thing. I guess their senior commander let it get out of hand, and that’s the way it was resolved. They were located in villages. And these two villages started shooting at each other.
It was around the middle of August that we got the word to start taking these pills. One was primaquine and another one called dapsone that you were supposed to take daily. They gave me stomach cramps like hell. I asked the medic what in the hell they were for, and he said one’s for malaria and the other one’s for leprosy. I said, “Make damn sure we don’t run out of that one for leprosy.”
Don’t Mess With The Koreans
The battery’s mission at Qui Nhon was general support of the South Korean Tiger Division. We were set up on the side of a hill, and there was a Korean mortar platoon on the hill top behind us to act as our security. And I had a radio relay station up there. The Koreans would fire illumination rounds randomly at night, and if they saw anything moving outside our wire, they just mortared the hell out of it.
One morning my mess sergeant came to me and said that one of the Korean illumination canisters had dropped into the mess tent. (When an illumination round bursts in the air its canister keeps going, so you’ve got to worry about where it lands.) It was laying on the ground there in the mess tent. When I called the Korean platoon leader down, he just looked at it and didn’t say anything. I kept saying, “Mortar crew made mistake.”
He finally said, “No mistake … no mistake.” He would not admit that they were responsible.
Our relay section the next morning called me on the land line and said, “Sir, something is going on up here.” Every morning these Koreans would fall out and do these Tae Kwon Do exercises in mass formation. You could hear them up there yelling. My relay section said, “They didn’t exercise this morning. Their lieutenant chewed a couple soldiers out and then took a rubber hose and beat them into the ground.”
I said, “You stay away from it, and don’t say a word to anybody, shut your mouth, and don’t even look.” I thought to myself, he may not have admitted there was a mistake but he certainly disciplined somebody for it. The commanding generals of those divisions had summary execution authority for their soldiers.
Sergeant Joe Mullins, a gun crew chief, and Captain Marchesseault relate an earlier incident involving the Koreans on the hill.
I sent a detail east over to the coast to fill sandbags. It was the nearest available beach. They were coming back with a deuce and a half full of sandbags. And Laster, my jeep driver, was in the back of one of the trucks. They saw a guy up on a hill who was a Korean aiming at them. He fired a shot that hit Laster’s canteen. They turned a corner out of this guy’s line of sight and came back to the battery all excited.
We’re on our way back from filling sandbags, I’m settin between Captain Marchesseault’s driver and another guy. We heard a rifle fire. We didn’t hear anything else, no bang or ping or anything. It think it was when we got to our location that he picked his web gear up and his canteen was leaking and it had a hole in it.
I remember looking at the canteen. It was one of those green plastic ones. The hole wasn’t very big and I said, “What was this?” The guys thought that he had a carbine. I said, “Wait a minute.” We threw the canteen down on the ground and I fired my M16 through it, and it made a much smaller hole. So it had to be a larger caliber weapon. It went right through the canteen, which was on his hip, and missed him.
I sent Malone and Laster over to the Korean compound to complain to the commander. The Korean commander called a bunch of guys in who were on guard duty and had them standing at attention in front of him and was questioning them. He finally got the one guy who fired the shot and he hauls off and slugs him in the face. The guy fell down on the ground. The guy sat up and he hit him again. Then they took him off like they were going to take him to jail. I guess the guy didn’t like Americans.
I remember that Korean compound. It was a pretty good size. We was basically mixed in with them, about as close as you can get. They were just a little higher on the hill from us, and we was down at the base. Them guys knew the Tae Kwon Do and did it every day. They had the wood poles that they flipped around. I set there and watched them do that stuff a bunch of times. If I could understand what they were saying I’d a got down there and joined em. They trained tough, I can tell you that.
I know one thing, their officers didn’t put up with no bull. The officers of the South Korean Army didn’t play no games with their soldiers. I seen em have one in the pushup position, and that lieutenant took his swagger stick and he beat the doggone tar out of him. I was afraid to look.
I felt good when we was around them Koreans. I know one thing about them, the North Vietnamese was scared to death of em. I think that’s what kept us not getting mortared or trying to get overrun so much when we was up there north of Qui Nhon, because of the South Koreans.
An Enduring Memory
As a battery commander I took my job seriously and was always looking after the welfare of the troops. One of the things you had to do was make sure you got rid of all the human waste. You couldn’t be digging slit trenches everywhere, otherwise you’d had the whole damn battery littered with open and closed trench latrines. The procedure that was used to get rid of the waste was to cut a 55 gallon drum in half, pour in diesel fuel, and build an outhouse over it with ammo boxes. You were lucky if you had a two-holer, and really lucky if you had a four-holer. We’d give the battery medic a detail every morning to pull out those half barrels, pour in more diesel fuel, then set them on fire and burn the waste.
Our battery medic was a fine young man. I can’t remember his name. I remember when he was leaving I talked to him at some length. He was going to school back east to get a degree. He said, “You know captain, this has been a great experience for me.”
I said, “What do you remember most about it?”
“What I remember most – I’m going to tell all my friends when I get home when they ask me what I did in Vietnam, I’m going to tell them, ‘I saw more shit.’”
“You going to let them take that figuratively or literally?”
“I’m not going to say anything after that.”
A Kick in the Ass
I noticed a gun section one night at dusk lined up in rigid military attention in front of their howitzer. On a command from the section chief they all kicked their right foot into the air vigorously and emitted a loud, EEEAAAH. I went to the section chief and said, “What’s going on there, chief?”
He said, “Sir, we have just kicked another Vietnam day in the ass.”