Monthly Archives: March 2014

Rik Groves – Gun Chief – Part Three





 At this point in the drama of B Battery, First Sergeant Farrell climbs on stage. He is one of those characters the troops either loved  or did not love. No one was neutral on the subject. 

First Sergeant Farrell
First Sergeant Farrell

First Sergeant Farrell, I liked him a lot. He was very fair. He had a temper and his voice had an edge to it, but he was always fair. That was the bottom line. If he ever went off on me, I deserved it.

One night I was on guard and he came out and said, “Sgt. Groves, I want you to come with me for a minute.” We went down to Gun 4 and there was a guy asleep on guard. Sgt. Farrell wanted a witness. He shined his flashlight in the guy’s face and said, “You see that?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “OK, I just wanted a witness.”

I had to write a statement. Farrell did it the right way with a witness. The guy didn’t get busted, just a reprimand of some sort, which was pretty light punishment for sleeping on guard.

Early in my journal I was reminded I got hit by a piece of shrapnel during a mortar attack. A mortar exploded right out in front of our gun. A piece of shrapnel hit me right below the right corner of my mouth and knocked my head back. It hurt like hell. I was scared to touch it because I knew enough about shock to know that my jaw might be gone without my feeling it. I could be dying. Finally I got the nerve to touch it. My face was still there and it was warm to the touch but the shrapnel didn’t break the skin – nothing. Either the flat side of the metal shrapnel hit me, or it was a stone. If the shrapnel was from the outside of the round, it’s gonna be flat.

Farrell comes by after the firing stops and asks if everybody’s all right. I say, “I took some shrapnel in the jaw but it didn’t break the skin.’”

He pulls out his pocketknife and says, “Here, let me give you a little nick, draw a little blood, and we’ll get you a Purple Heart.”

I wasn’t looking for a Purple Heart, just telling him the story. I ended up getting a Purple Heart, but not for that.


April 2, 1969 …

  marks the date when the boys of Battery B begin to die.

 I was coming back from Vung Tao on in-country R&R when I got the news.

4-2-69 journal Small MB

Of course I remembered sitting next to Sherlock back in Phan Rang when we were both new in country and coming out to Sherry together. I would see Steve around the battery. He was assigned to a different gun, but I remember him well. I never knew Percy, he was only in the battery a couple weeks.

Tom Townley was the medic at LZ Sherry when the mine exploded. The following is from Doc Townley’s earlier account posted August 22, 2013.

I was burning shit at the time, when I heard an explosion and looked up and could see the smoke over the tree line. And I knew something had happened but I didn’t know what. And then all of a sudden I saw a Jeep come flying towards the firebase screaming and yelling, “Doc, Doc, get over here.” Well I ran and grabbed my bag and jumped on the jeep, and they took me out there.

I got out of the jeep and was walking along the side of the road. Farrell probably saved my life. He said, “Doc! Stop! Watch where you’re walking.”

And I stopped.

He said, “You can’t walk over there. Walk on the hardpan.”

I came close to stepping on one of those bombs that when you step on it all the little bombs pop up in the air. I almost stepped on it. The Viet Cong picked up artillery rounds and bombs that never exploded and buried them as mines. There was enough explosives in this one it would have blown my leg off.

But I had to take care of Gulley. He was blown away from here down.

Tom places his hand at his rib cage.

There was nothing there. Nothing. It was gone. His one arm was gone. And he was still alive. Well I wrapped his arm for him, because he saw it. Told him he was going to be all right, that was all I could tell him, you know. I still have dreams about that. But there was nothing I could do, absolutely nothing I could do. There was nothing there to do anything with. You know what I mean? But he hung in there for a good 20 minutes. It took that much time, and he was still alive.

He is silent for a long moment.

The way …. the way … he was blown, it must have constricted the blood flow, enough to keep him alive. He had enough blood in him to keep him alive apparently. Sherlock was already dead. He was gone. There was nothing we could do for him.

They were not the only ones I saw when I was there. I saw a couple of Vietnamese that they brought in and wanted me to fix up. They were already dead.

Judson and another guy they took right down to the helipad at Sherry because they had a helicopter coming in. I did not treat either one of them. I didn’t talk to them or anything. They just sent them right on through because they were mostly superficial wounds.

“Were you the only medic there?

I was the only medic, but when they say you’re the only medic it means the only one trained to be a medic. But you had people like First Sergeant Farrell and there was an E7 sergeant there. They had enough experience that they were just as good a medic as I was. So I really wasn’t alone. You were never alone over there. Everybody had your back. Farrell was a little different, but I’ll tell you what, he was all business when he was business. He was 100% business. He was a good first sergeant.


May 17, 1969

 Six weeks later two more soldiers die on an airmobile operation at LZ Nora, ten miles north of Sherry. It is a lonely outpost at the top of a barren hill.


LZ Nora
Landing Zone Nora

There were just two guns there, my Gun 2, BAD NEWS in the foreground, and another gun. No one can remember the name of that gun. Nora was a small area at the top of a hill. It was such a small area the choppers had to set our stuff down at the bottom of the hill and we had to haul everything up the hill to set up the guns. It was really a bitch. They would bring in our ammo and water blivets and dump everything at the bottom of the hill. You could see how little protection we had if we ever had a ground attack. That’s the same way it was back in January.

Journal entry of May 17, 1969

I am very sorry to write that at 2 AM this morning we had two more men killed. Staff Sergeant Johnson and his loader Lloyd Handschumaker died. It happened out at Nora. Both guns were shooting together in a sort of ‘mad minute’. My gun shot a round that suddenly detonated right over the hooches. It killed Jim instantly. ‘Hand Job’, as we called him, died while waiting for the Dust Off. Mulvihill, Leggett and Bongi were wounded using my gun, and Williams was wounded on the other gun. They said it was a malfunction of a PD (point detonating) fuse.

 My gun was involved, but not my crew. On May 7 Captain Marquette, our new battery commander, decided to switch the crews out. So Tommy Mulvihill’s crew from Gun 4 came out and took over my gun, and we rotated back to Sherry and worked Tommy’s gun. The crew from gun 1 came out and took over the other gun.

When the accident happened the guns were shooting nighttime H&I to keep the VC off the perimeter. You can see from the picture there wasn’t much between us and them. The guns were turned roughly 45 degrees to the right from where the picture shows them pointed. So BAD NEWS was aiming just to the left of the other gun. A round left my gun and detonated practically right out of the tube. It killed Jim Johnson and Lloyd Handschumaker on that other gun and wounded Williams. It also wounded Tommy Mulvihill, Leroy Leggett and Tony Bongi working my gun.

At LZ Nora Tommy Mulvihill earned the first of three Purple Hearts. He would be wounded five times over the course of his tour in Vietnam. For Tony this was the first of two Purple Hearts.


Almost Killed a Kid

 This is an important story, because I came within a whisker of killing a little Vietnamese kid. We are coming back from town on a convoy. I am in the first truck, which is the second vehicle in the convoy behind the lead jeep. I have ammo in the back of my truck, and there are two or three trucks behind me, and then there is the Dusters’ truck. It is the only truck in the convoy that has nothing in its bed, because they were unable to get their ammo.

All of a sudden there is a huge explosion. I turn around and look back and there’s this huge black ball of smoke drifting into the sky. SOP was you never stop if you get hit, you hightail it out of there. They’d try to take the front truck out, and then the back truck, and then they finish you off. I am the ranking NCO, and I immediately grab my M16 and yell at my driver to take off. I jump out and run around behind the truck to the other side of the road and start heading down there. I’m waving everybody by me yelling GO, GO, GO.

I see a Vietnamese kid running along the rice paddy dyke and there’s an ARVN soldier chasing him. I know that kid set off the mine, a command detonated mine, and I know he killed some of my friends, I know he killed those guys in that truck. I pull up my M16 – I get chills when I tell this story – I pull my M16 up and I flip it on AUTOMATIC and I aim it right at his ankles, and I’m going to let it naturally crawl right up him. I’m gonna kill that little shit. I yell, “DUNG LAI,”, which means STOP. I yell again, “DUNG LAI, DUNG LAI,” and he keeps running. The ARVN is chasing the kid and he is running away. I start to squeeze the trigger, and all I can say is the good Lord had to do it, because I didn’t do it voluntarily. I pull my rifle up and shoot a couple short bursts in the air. The kid stops dead in his tracks. He turns around crying and screaming. The ARVN grabs him and shakes him and I know what he was saying to the kid – If you run away they’re going to shoot you. It turns out the kid didn’t do anything. He was just out there to get candy. I see the chain of events in my head – when the explosion goes off he gets scared and starts running, I assume he had set it off, he killed my friends, now I’m gonna shoot him.

I go back to the blown up truck. The front set of dual tires on each side are blown into the rice paddy, maybe 30 feet away. The explosion opened the back bed of the truck up like putting a cherry bomb in a tin can. There’s diesel and oil running all over. Luckily it was the only truck that didn’t have anything in it. The lead jeep, and my truck that had a load of ammo, and two or three other trucks rolled over that same spot and somehow missed the detonator. The only truck that hits it, not only did it not have any ammo, but my two buddies didn’t have a scratch on them. Their eyes are big as saucers and they can’t hear for awhile, but they didn’t have a scratch.

I almost killed a kid for nothing. I was within an eyelash of killing that kid. I get emotional just saying it.

Rik Groves – Gun Chief – Part Two





In the early morning hours of January 12, 1969 a heavily armed force of Viet Cong launched a ground attack through the southern perimeter of LZ Sherry and immediately in front of a tank providing security for the firebase. Their first objective was to take out the tank with a rocket propelled grenade, then breach the wire and wreck havoc across the compound with more RPGs, AK 47s and grenades. The attack came from the south while the battery was engaged in a fire mission to the north, perhaps manufactured to draw attention away from the initial attack.

We were all on the guns shooting a fire mission facing almost due North. We were in a CHECK FIRE situation while the forward observer was ascertaining whether he needed more rounds on target. We were not actually firing at the moment, but standing around the guns. All of a sudden there was a BOOM, one report. Normally when a tank or howitzer fires there is the BOOM when it fires, and another when the shell hits. To us the single report meant that tank had got hit, or something next to it, and a ground attack could be coming.

We immediately scrambled out of the fire mission and went to our sectors of fire. I was on Gun 2. We spun our gun around almost 180 degrees and started pumping rounds out just over the perimeter, time fuses set for a 50 meter air burst. Our sector of fire was just to the right of that tank and traversing around just a little past the tower out by the road. We had a separate cache of rounds, Charge 1 with the fuses already set very short, because you wanted an air burst and you wanted it close, so close we would get shrapnel back in on us. You could hear it hitting like rocks around us. Once in awhile you’d feel it hit your leg. We had to elevate the tube a little bit because we are shooting over FDC and other hooches. You load, you traverse the tube, and as soon as a new round is loaded you yank the lanyard, and keep on as fast as you can load. Everybody is doing the same thing to their sector of fire, and base piece is putting up illumination.

Air Detonation Over Perimeter Courtesy Bob Christenson
Air Burst Over Perimeter
Courtesy Bob Christenson

We do that for a few minutes, and we get the command CHECK FIRE, CHECK FIRE. It turned out the tank had not gotten hit. What we heard was a canister round being fired from the tank.

I later talked to the tanker who fired the round. He was sitting up in the turret that morning on guard duty and looking through his starlight scope. He said he saw a VC at the closest row of concertina wire right in front of the tank maybe 20 feet away, and more behind him. Remember we had three rows of concertina wire, and each row had three coils – two next to each other and one on top. Between the rows of concertina we had rows of tangle-foot wire. We had empty C-ration cans with stones in them for noise, we had trip flares, we had a few phu gas barrels. Well they came up to right in front of that tank and the tanker did not see them until the last minute.

At night they always kept a canister round loaded, a gigantic 90 mm shotgun shell loaded with steel balls. He told me he just lowered the tube and fired. One second later and the VC would have fired point blank into the tank. The canister round blew nine or ten VC literally to pieces. The individual holding the RPG would be known as “Head and Shoulders”, because that’s all that was left of him tangled in the wire. I don’t know who made up the name, but it stuck.

These guys would have come in, taken out the tank, but most importantly, they’re coming in and in another 30 meters is Fire Direction Control. They take out the FDC radios and now we can’t call for help, can’t call in Spooky or gunships. Then you’re fighting for your life. That tanker being alert on guard duty saved a lot of lives, no question.

I went out early the next morning to take pictures. I took six pictures, that was it. When you see people in pieces, even if it’s the enemy, that’ll do something to you. I didn’t feel it then, they’re the enemy, they’re the bad guys. I look at my picture of Head and Shoulders, with shards of flesh hanging from the concertina, an absolutely grisly picture. At the same time when it happened I thought, Thank God for that guy in that tank turret. Thank God we got those bastards. In combat it’s a different mindset.

What the VC Carried
What the VC Carried

Later they found seven or eight more bodies farther back and a little more to the left, evidently killed by my gun. They were massing out there. I never saw any bodies that my gun killed, it’s just what I was told. I also heard that they found a body or two out near the chopper pad.

On March 6, the day I began my journal, I went back to the January 12 page and wrote about what I remembered and what I was told about that morning, because it was a significant event.

Added to Journal on March 6, 1969
Added to Journal on March 6, 1969

Later that morning we left to go on an air mobile operation, so I was not there when the battalion commander came. I was not there when they brought a bulldozer in to dig a trench and push the bodies in . . . or whatever they did with the bodies. I didn’t see any of that. Our guns had already left on the mobile operation. It’s really significant that we had two or three sling loads of 105 ammo out on the chopper pad ready to go in the morning. It could have been real ugly.

The last thing that goes on top of this is we got airlifted out and set down in the middle of someplace with far less security than we had at the firebase. We landed and I remember there was cactus and being surprised to see it in tropical Vietnam. You think we were jumpy … Holy Cow. Hard on the heels of killing a bunch of VC in the wire we’re out on an operation.

The only thing you have out there is an incomplete parapet around your guns because your hooches form the parapet around the gun, and there’s gaps between the hooches. On top of a makeshift ammo bunker there’s an M60 machine gun and it’s pointing out to nothing. There’s just a coil of concertina wire about 20 feet out from the guns. There’s no added perimeter security . . . we are it.

On Operations Later That Morning
On Operations Later That Morning

I remember being on guard a couple nights after the attack on Sherry. I’m on the M60 and looking out into dead black dark. Everything that moves is a bad guy. Sgt. Calvin Smith walked up behind me and said something and I must have jumped six feet. I said, “Damn it, don’t ever do that again.”

He laughed.

After the attack Rik drew a map of LZ Sherry for himself and to send home to his family. It shows the guns oriented north while the attack comes from the south directly in front of a tank, the three strands of concertina wire, the proximity of the hooches in easy reach, and the chopper pad where the ammo sat ready for the airmobile operation and where another body was found. 

Map of Firebase and Attack of January 12, 1969
Map of Firebase and Attack of January 12, 1969

Rik Groves – Gun Chief – Part One





Staff Sgt. Groves with the many shells and fuses used in Vietnam
Staff Sgt. Groves with the many shells and fuses used in Vietnam

 Rik’s time in Vietnam begins a bloody period for B Battery. A Viet Cong ground attack begins the year in January of 1969, followed that summer and fall by the deaths of seven boys, and the wounding of over half the firebase. Rik still carries shrapnel in his neck, chest and arm, souvenirs he wished he’d left behind. He did bring back something that grows more precious with the years, a daily journal covering the last six months of this tour.


The Journal

 I got to LZ Sherry in mid September 1968, and began my journal on March 6, 1969. The last entry was on September 14 on my way home. The book I wrote in was one I had someone bring back from a convoy to LZ Betty. I just said get me a journal or something to write on. They brought me back this thing that said AGENDA 1969 on the front. It’s not a journal, it’s more like an accountant’s book. But it had the date on each page, and that’s all I needed. The pages had columns on them, which I just wrote over. I wrote in it every day. It got interrupted when I got wounded and was in the hospital. I did not have my journal, so I wrote on hospital paper and then transcribed it back into the journal after one of the guys brought it to the hospital.

On many of the pages of my journal I am waxing sad about missing my wife and so on. I don’t regret that, except that I wish I had spent more time writing about the details of what was going on. By the same token it is an unimpeachable source of things that happened on certain dates. Nobody can argue about something that happened, because I’ve got it written down. I wrote down when we got hit and I’d write “10 to 12 rounds.” Or I’d write when somebody came into my section, or when somebody got promoted. Like Fitchpatrick, he was my gunner for a long time. We became good friends, and then he went to Gun 5 and took over as the gun chief. I can tell you the date that happened because it’s in the book.

July 3, 1969
July 3, 1969

Starting on the 40th anniversary of when I began the journal, March 6, 2009, I published each day’s entry in an email for the guys I had met up with on Veteran’s Day Weekend in 2007: James Sprout, Tommy Mulvihill, Hank Parker, Jim Kustes and Howie Pyle’s brother, Gregg. Gregg has become like a brother to all of us. Dave Fitchpatrick couldn’t make it to Washington that year but had been with the guys the year before so he was on the mailing list, too. I called the emails ’40 Years On . . .’

The Road To Vietnam

 I was married in September, 1967; I was drafted and went into the Army on Thanksgiving week 1967, so we were together only about 2 ½ months as a married couple before I went into the service. I wasn’t quite 21.

I had gone to the University of Minnesota for a year, and then to radio broadcasting school. I was immediately 1A when I graduated and right away got drafted. I hoped to get stateside duty or Germany. I said to myself, I don’t want to go to war, but if I’m called it’s my duty and I’ll go. I had a couple of friends who said if they got drafted they were going to Canada. Our friendship was never the same after that.

I went to Basic at Ft. Leonard Wood and artillery training at Ft. Sill. They called a bunch of us in and told us that we qualified for NCO school. They said, “Gentlemen, once you graduate to NCO school you will go to Vietnam. That’s what we’re training you for, we need NCOs.”  I went to Vietnam as a sergeant E5, and had been married just over a year. I was 21 when I went to Vietnam, older than most.

I went over with a guy I had become very good friends with, Barry Holland, who was from Sacramento California. He had gotten married while we were in NCO school, and our wives stayed together in Minnesota. Barry and I went over together hoping we’d get assigned to the same unit. That didn’t happen.

I’ll always remember flying into Vietnam. I went by Flying Tiger Airlines, which was primarily a transport airline, but it also flew troops over. We couldn’t land at first. We circled Bien Hoa Airbase and I see these flashes on the ground, and I think they’re firing H&I down there. We finally land and one of the most vivid memories is when they opened that door there was this blast of damp, stinky air of Vietnam. We go down the stairway, it’s the middle of the night. They put us on these long benches underneath a tin roof, open on the sides. The guy up at the front says, “Sorry to keep ya’ll waitin’, we were gettin’ mortar and rocket fire while you were getting ready to land so we had to hold you up for awhile.” I thought, Oh God, great! That was my initiation into Vietnam.

Barry got assigned to the 25th Infantry Division and I went to First Field Force. The first place I went to was Nha Trang, and the first guy I met and hung with for a day and a half was Steve Sherlock. Steve and I walked around Nha Trang, you could go into town at that time, and it was a beautiful city. We ended up both getting assigned to the 5/27 and we both went to Phan Rang. And this is one of my strong memories. We go into a room in Phan Rang – I’ll always remember this as one of the things that will stick with me forever – we sit down on benches and Steve Sherlock is next to me. An officer is up front telling us a little history of the battalion. He proceeds to tell us that we had only lost one person in the battalion since it had been in Vietnam (since late 1965). When he says that – when I remember this I still get chills – when he says that I get this chill up my back and I say to myself, I’m going to get hit over here. I don’t have the sense I am going to die, necessarily but I have the very strong feeling that I am going to get hit. My feeling does not differentiate whether I am going to die or get wounded, but I have the sense I’m going to get hit over here. Little do I know that the guy sitting right next to me on my right, rubbing elbows, would be the next guy to die.

Prayer of the Gun Chief

At B Battery I was assigned to Gun 3 at first, base piece, under Sergeant Lawler. He was leaving shortly, and then I took over as chief when he left. Before long they moved me over to Gun 2 as chief, where I stayed for the rest of my time in Vietnam. I was so concerned that I would make a mistake and do something to get one of my men killed or wounded. I was really worried. It was the responsibility of leadership. I took it real seriously. Every day I said to myself, “God, help me not make any mistakes that get guys hurt.” That was my biggest worry. It took my mind off myself.

Ronnie Thomas – Forward Observer, Gun Chief




Sgt. Ronnie Thomas
Sgt. Ronnie Thomas

Wounded twice and exposed to hostile action for most of his tour, Sergeant Ronnie Thomas describes his life today.

 When I got back, when I landed at Seattle, Washington, I got off that plane and I made myself a promise. That place was gonna stay back there. Just the happy memories are coming with me. And that’s what happened. It hasn’t bothered me. I haven’t had any problems whatsoever in my mind over it.

When I got back my wife and I got married. She graduated from William and Mary, she’s a school teacher, retired. Been married for 44 years. There you go, I don’t know how I put up with her that long. She is in the room listening and he laughs. Likely it’s the other way around.

I live in Yorktown, Virginia. I been living around Yorktown and Newport News all my life. I was born in Emporia, but my dad moved up here and started working in the shipyard. I have two farms about 80 miles from here. I go out and deer hunt on weekends. It’s relaxing for me to get out in the woods. Take my tractor and bush hog and take care of my roads. That’s just things I enjoy doing. I walk five miles every day, been doing that the last 15 years, my dog and me. I got a dog as old as me almost. Life is good.

The Cigarettes Didn’t Help

 I went over January 10th, 1968 and the TET offensive started January 30th. So I got baptized. Then we road marched from Qui Nhon in trucks and went all the way to 90 miles outside of Saigon to LZ Judy, near a place called Phan Thiet. We had the shit shot out of us the whole way down. But we made it fine.

 I was not at the battery all the time. I was also a forward observer with the 101st Airborne Infantry. I would call in artillery for them. We were very accurate. We could hit a gnat in the ass at seven miles (maximum range of the 105 howitzers of B Battery). I’d go out sometimes in the field, and then sometimes I’d go up in a helicopter, I was all over that place. We’d go out for two, three days. I carried the radio for the captain. He and I became real good friends, and we’re good friends today. We had a lot of the same interests. I was all-state in football as a freshman, and he was a big football player. Neither one of us were married at the time. The captain gave me his patch. He took the patch right off his shirt and put it on mine.

To surrender one’s combat patch to someone from another unit was a mark of deep friendship and respect.

When I carried the radio and kept getting shot at I said, well you know it’s this radio. The Viet Cong figured no radio, no artillery. I didn’t smoke, and you know we got two cartons of cigarettes a month in our rations. We had an ARVN soldier with us, so I gave that ARVN my cigarettes and he carried the radio.

But I still got wounded. I got shrapnel pretty bad in the leg, it was a nasty wound to my thigh. I went to Cam Ranh Bay for about a month and a half. I didn’t want to go home so I came back to B Battery and finished up my tour as a section chief on a gun.

Unhealthy To Mess with Thomas

 I used to be a rambler, I’ll tell you. I was five foot seven, weighted 215 and had a 30 inch waist – a tough dude. There was this one black guy, he was buffed up and about six foot three. He always wanted a piece of me, because I always had the reputation of the toughest guy in the whole battery. I don’t know if I was or not, but everybody liked me, and he never would take the step. I didn’t dislike anybody, until they made me dislike em.

There was a guy who was my best friend, Pop Hesson from Carthage, Tennessee. He’s just an ol’ country boy that lived in the mountains. I became real good friends with him. I went into town one time and came back, and there were two black guys just punchin’ him in the chest. The black guys, I was their boss, they were in my unit. I said, “What the hell is goin’ on here?”

Pop Hesson said, “These guys are nuts. They been drinking.”

So I stepped in between ‘em and said, “Ya’ll get your ass out of here, and Pop you go on.”

And then one of ‘em hit me. And when he hit me, I went on him and broke his ribs. And the other one pulled the antenna off a jeep and hit me across the back with that antenna. I went off on him too. They medevac’d both of them out of there, and neither one of them ever came back. I didn’t do this stuff until somebody did it to me.

The next day things had calmed down, and I can tell you a story that will really make you smile …

German Practicality

 The First Sergeant came by and said we’re having an IG inspection. Some general or colonel or somebody is coming out here tomorrow in a helicopter to look around. I was a sergeant and told the guys in my platoon, “Look, I want you all to put on some good clothes. You walk around in rags. Put on good clothes, you don’t have to be the best in the world, but git your boots a little bit better and just see what you can do.”

There was a German that was in my platoon. His name was Altenberg. He was huge, about six foot three and just all man. He was about the only one in the whole battery that could handle me.

So I was walking around and checking parapets and checking guards, and everybody had done what they were supposed to do, except Altenberg. His boots looked like shit and they were tore all to pieces. So I took his boots over to my hooch and I shined them up so they looked good. And this is the truth, I carried them back and put them under his bunk.

The next day the IG inspector landed – he was a general. They fell us all out in front of our hooches, and this general started walking by. I hadn’t paid any attention until then, but I saw Altenberg was standing there barefooted. I thought, Jeeesuz. That’s the kind of guy he was. He really didn’t give a damn. He was standing there barefooted, and I said to myself, Oh shit.

The general stopped in front of Altenberg, looked down and said, “Son, where’s your boots?”

Altenberg said, “I throwed ‘em out in that damn rice paddy right there.”

The general said, “Why?”

Altenberg stepped  out of line and pointed at me and said, “You see that sergeant down there?”

The general turned his head in my direction and said, “Yeah.”

“That son of a bitch polished my damn boots last night. The VC can smell that shit so I throwed ‘em in the rice paddy.”

The general said, “Good job, son.”

Then the general come by me and I thought, Jesus Christ I’m gonna get my ass eat out. He shook my hand and said, “Good job, buddy.”

After that the general came by and talked to people one-on-one. He was the nicest guy in the world.




Hazards of Air Mobile

 One time they took us out in the mountains, and the Montagnards and indigenous forces cleared out a big landing zone for us. We put two guns there, and we stayed there four days, firing all four days. We got mortared during the day and every night. And then they came to pick us up with a Chinook to take us back to LZ Judy. The whole gun crew was in there, with the howitzer and a sling of ammo hanging below it. At about a thousand feet in the air that thing started vibratin’ and jumpin’ and jimpin’. It was droppin’ and vibratin’, and I thought my time was up then. They had to cut the whole load loose, and the gun and ammunition and everything hit the ground, and we got out of there. Then they called an airstrike in on it, so the VC couldn’t get it. Between the gun and the ammo and the whole crew in there, I guess it was overloaded. That all happened about four miles outside of Phan Thiet.

Chinook With Howitzer and Ammo Load Courtesy Rik Groves
Chinook With Howitzer and Ammo Load
Courtesy Rik Groves 


Vietnamese Cuisine

 This was funny. When we were on that operation in the mountains we had South Vietnamese troops on the perimeter, and they came back in one day after killing a Viet Cong, but you know what tickled them to death? They had two big ol’ bags full of bullfrogs. Man, they thought they had done something. They all got together and cooked them bullfrogs up, it smelled like shit. I mean they were nasty bastards.

Then we’re on convoy going through a village one time. I got out of the truck and was walking and ol’ mama-san’s got a big ol’ pot boiling, big iron pot like we’d cook a stew in. Mama-san reached in there with a pair of tongs and pulled up this big ass duck egg. She said, “You want, GI?”

I said, “Noooo.”

She cracked the top of that thing out and sucked that duck out of there and chewed it feathers, head, guts and all. Geemaneechristmas, it almost made me sick.


Helping A New Lieutenant

 We had a lieutenant that came in that acted like he just came out of charm school. He was giving orders and doing all the wrong things the wrong way. He was hounding people, not talking to them like men. He was just a shave tail, all dressed up and looking pretty. And here we were in a combat zone, all nasty, hadn’t taken a bath or a shower. The first two weeks we put up with it, we thought he would straighten up.

He had gotten onto one of my people for some little crap that didn’t mean anything, and I finally had to talk to him. I was kind of rough and tough, I said to him, “Look buddy, you need to chill out, and you and I need to sit down and talk.”

“What do we need to talk about?”

I said, “Your ass more than anything else.”

He said, “I’m your lieutenant.”

I said, “Yeah, that’s what we need to talk about. You’re going to lose your ass if you keep being an asshole.”

We sat down and talked and I told him, “If you got a problem with my people I’d appreciate it if you’d come to me.” After that he came around.

A Nano-Second Away

 Here’s another good story for you. We took two guns and went up to Tuy Hoa and we set up in this school yard. We fired illumination. It was a hot area, so I had people on guard duty with M60 machine guns on the perimeter. A guy in my platoon, his name was Scott, big, dumb, he really wasn’t all there. I don’t know how he got into the military. He smoked a pipe. I went out on night checking and Scott was sitting there and I said, “You need to go take a break or anything, I’ll sit here.”

He said, “Yeah, I gonna take a piss.”

He was dumb as a rock, he really was, but I really thought a lot of him and I took care of him. He goes out, and you know what he did? I didn’t see it, but we had concertina wire out there and he somehow without me seeing him walked right in front of that gun outside the barbed wire to take a leak. I looked and I saw a shadow moving out in front of me. I didn’t know who was there. So I took the machine gun and I said, “Who’s there?” I yelled several times for him to halt. I was a nano-second from pulling that trigger on him.

Finally he said, “It’s me, motherfucker.”

I was a nano-second from cutting him in half, he wasn’t twenty yards from me. That’s the scardest I ever been – almost killed one of my own men. If I’d a killed him I would never have forgiven myself. I thought a lot of him. It scared me so bad when he came back I smacked him around for twenty minutes.

PFC Scott and Sgt. Thomas
PFC Scott and Sgt. Thomas