In this picture you can see that I’m a short timer because of the towel around my neck. That’s what the short timers did; we’d walk around with a towel to show that we were close to going home and we didn’t want to be sent on any stupid shit, because our time on Sherry was almost up – but it didn’t help.
In Nha Trang or Phan Rang, he threw a grenade into the first Sergeant’s sleeping quarters because he had an issue. But the grenade did not go off. So for punishment they sent him to Sherry. He got off the chopper and First Sergeant Durant comes down and tells me, “your getting a guy that’s nothing but trouble.” And he tells me what the guy did.
I thought, Jeez, I’m getting short and you’re giving me a guy that’s going to blow me up. It was a disaster as far as I was concerned. Since I was in charge of ammo section, I was going to have to figure out how to deal with him on a daily basis.
I went out to the chopper and I thought, Well OK, I’m gonna have to figure this guy out pretty quick. He got off the chopper and he’s bigger than me. I’m thinking, Oh my goodness, he’s a nut case. I went up and said to him, “How you doin’, Frag?”
He started laughing and said, “My reputation has preceded me.”
I had to take him to see First Sergeant and Lt. Parker, who had a talk with him. Top said something like, “Out here at Sherry things are different. You screw around and you won’t go home. We’ll put you on an OP (observation post) 300 yards out there and we’ll shoot at you all night long.” Something like that; First Sergeant had ways of getting his point across.
The name Frag stuck with him. He was never a problem. He always had a smile on his face and was the hardest working guy. He was fine. He somehow had an issue with people in the rear, but he never had a problem with us.
Dunne died in November and I left maybe a month after that. I know I was fuzzed up because we were waiting to go on a road convoy, and I was in the lead truck. We saw a big puff of smoke out on the road. We thought they had found a mine and blew it up. It turned out that they hit a mine. They were sweeping for mines to clear the road for the convoy.
Durant sent us out to create a perimeter so they could get a Medevac in. I’m four weeks from going home and I was lying in a rice paddy wondering what’s going to happen. This ain’t good.
We got the medic out and he kept Dunne alive for 45 minutes out there in the jeep. He died either in route or in the hospital.
They said it was the floorboard under the seat that came up and got him. Jim Kustes was riding on the hood. He got blown off and was messed up. It’s a wonder he wasn’t killed too.
I was not going to be there for Christmas, so I told Tony Bongi I would send him a bottle of whiskey from home. My dad had to take me to the liquor store, because I wasn’t old enough to buy it.
I continued to have issues with my ear, even after I was out of the Army. Some mornings I’d wake up and there’d be crap on my pillow from my ear. The VA in Detroit and Allen Park was dirty – terrible. An ear specialist looked at me there; you remember the movie Frankenstein, the guy who played Dr. Frankenstein with his hair all fuzzed up? That’s what he looked like. He came out with a tuning fork like the kind they use for pianos and he hit it and he put it on my head and he said, “Can you hear that?”
I said, “I can feel it.”
And that’s how he checked my hearing. I thought, I got to get out of here, man.
They told me I had a service-connected problem with my hearing but it wasn’t anything they were going to do anything about. I just quit going to the VA. You have to laugh to keep from crying for the way they treated the Vietnam Vets back then. Thankfully, the VA has improved immensely since then and I really appreciate the great care I get there now.
A bad ear and teeth weren’t the only thing I came home with. Tommy Mulvihill and I got ringworm on a mine sweep walking through the rice paddies. I still have places on my face where hair doesn’t grow because of it, and recurring patches on my stomach and chest.
In Sgt. King’s absence, when he was being treated for a wild cat bite, First Sgt. Durant put me in charge of ammo section and this is when I learned what it took to be a section chief; just think, me, a PFC, hobnobbing with all the NCOs and Shake and Bakes. When Sgt. King returned from Nha Trang we were so short handed he was put on one of the gun crews, and I remained the chief of the ammo section.
One night in a ground attack we killed a few VC in the wire. Turned out one of them was the Vietnamese who would come into our battery to give us haircuts. That’s when Judson became the new battery barber.
And then I got more good news: I was due to go on R&R in September, but we were so short handed my R&R was canceled.
In June we started to get mortared and by August it was on a regular basis. The amount of wounded due to these attacks was taking a toll on the battery. We had two guns out on operation as well, and the attacks were becoming more frequent.
We were so shorthanded we were working four guys on a gun, and then trying to do all the other stuff like fixing wire that got blown up in mortar attacks. We were all looking at each other and thinking it was process of elimination; so many guys were getting knocked off every day. I remember telling Sandage, “I’m open for a leg wound, because this ain’t good.”
Early in the day on August 12, Gun 2 was mortared, wounding the Section Chief, Rik Groves, and Stanley was mortally wounded. Then later that day base piece also took a direct mortar hit, killing section chief, Corporal Pyle, and wounding the rest of the crew.
In a frantic attempt to get Base Piece operational, Sergeant Lamar grabbed what was left of ammo section. There were only three or four of us left by then, because we all been scattered to short-handed gun crews. We had to go man Base Piece and try to get it to fire. It was on flat tires and we were trying to turn the gun, and that’s when we found a guy outside the ammo bunker holding his stomach. And we’re screaming, “Hey, we got another guy here that’s messed up.” Enge and Pyle and the black fellow were gone already, and the next Medevac took him. All that shit happened at night. It was just havoc all the time.
A few days later, we got news that the hospital that our wounded were being treated in was hit by the VC and they were shooting guys in their beds. Thankfully, our guys got through it OK.
We were pulling double guard duty in the towers because FDC had gotten word that we were probably going to get hit that night, we just didn’t know when. I was on guard duty with Pedro Rodriguez a few hours after the night shift started. We were a couple of hours into our guard shift when mortars started coming in and two landed inside the parapet of Gun 6 right behind us. Nobody was on the gun at the time. Sergeant Lamar came out and started yelling to get our M60 machine gun into action. The trail on the gun had been hit and he couldn’t swing it around into sector. He was frantic to cover the sector because everybody was still nervous of ground attacks coming from that direction.
We opened up with the M60 and were firing right over the helipad when they started to walk the mortars in on us. Two hit between our tower and Gun 6, and then two hit the tower. The first one hit behind us and the shrapnel got me in the shoulder. The second one was a direct hit on the tower hitting the sandbags that were protecting us, and blew me and Rodriguez out the back of the tower. When I hit the ground my head snapped back and did something to my jaw. We both ended up underneath a pile of sandbags. Rodriguez couldn’t see because the blast had blown sand into his face and it was like a piece of raw meat. I got him over to the medic right away, and that was the last I saw him.
I was messed up, but not bad enough and went back to the tower. Lamar was still yelling for cover fire. I went to climb back up in the tower, the roof was gone along with a whole side and the thing was wobbly. I unburied the M60 from underneath sandbags and kept it going until almost daylight.
The attack came from the southwest just out from the helipad. When you look at a map of the battery you can see it’s in line with Gun 2 and Gun 3, both of which took direct hits just two weeks before. Now they drop a notch and land the mortars on Gun 6, and another notch and they’re right on top of Tower 2. They had us dialed in.
The next day Lt. Parker looked at me and said, “We’re not Medevacing you out because we can’t do it. You’re walking wounded until we can do something for you.” I agreed to it because I knew we were short handed. Lt. Parker cared for the guys, and had to make decisions. He was not getting replacements.
The medic had patched my shoulder up and said if I was in pain to come see him. It was after three or four days I went to the medic in the morning for pain medication because my face swelled up to the point where I couldn’t chew, could not eat, and my ear was so bad there was crap coming out of it. The medic looked at me and said he couldn’t do anything for it. He finally told Lt. Parker, “Look, I can do no more for him. You gotta get him out of here.” They sent me to Phan Rang finally.
I got to Phan Rang and they didn’t have an ear specialist, so they had to send me to Nha Trang. So I’m sitting in the airport with a flight ticket to get on a C130 transport for Nha Trang and I fell asleep. I slept for 12 hours in the airport. I go up to the desk and I still have my flight ticket and the guy says, “That left yesterday morning , man. Where the hell have you been?”
I said, “Right over there.” I had my rifle and bandolier.
He said, “What are you doing with that rifle, man?”
I said, “Hey, I come from LZ Sherry. You don’t go anywhere without this baby. This baby stays with me.
He says, “Look, there are no flights to Nha Trang until tomorrow afternoon. Go down the road to the Air Force barracks and they might be able to give you a bunk.”
I went down there, knocked on a door and a colonel answered the door and he said to go down the road to that Quonset hut. There are some guys who are on TDY and there’s a couple of empty bunks and you can sleep there. I walked down there, and these guys looked at me coming in with a steel pot helmet on, a swollen face, I got my rifle and flack jacket on, and they’re like, “What the hell are you?”
I said, “They told me to come down here and maybe you’d have a bunk.”
Those guys treated me good. They had steaks they were cooking on little stoves and air conditioning, and I thought, Lord have mercy.
One guy said, “Can I see your rifle?”
I said, “If you want that, you can have it. Where I’m at we carry these all day long.”
They said, “Ours are locked up.”
“Not where I come from.”
When they got me in Nha Trang, they put some kind of sleeve in my ear and then took a rod and pushed it into my ear and you should have seen the crap that came out. The guy said, “How long have you been this way?”
I said “About five days, maybe six.”
He says, “Man, that must have hurt.”
Then they said my teeth were inflamed and were causing the problem with my ear. So they decided they were going to pull a bunch of teeth out. The dentist said, “We don’t do crowns here, but they’ll take care of you back in the states. “ Then he pulled a handful of teeth out of my lower jaw.
I thought that might be my ticket home, but I ran into Judson sitting with his arm in a sling and he said, “No man, they’re sending us back to Sherry.”
No Nonsense Purple Hearts
I was on a trash detail with a black guy named Cunningham. We were picking up all the powder sacks from the gun parapets to take them out to the trash dump to burn. We had a truck-load of powder and were out at the dump unloading it. We saw three or four choppers come in, and we thought it might be the 101st going out on some kind of mission. Somebody came out in a jeep and said, “You guys got to get your asses back in the battery because you’re getting an award.”
We were like, What? I remember I was a mess. I had to go to my hooch, get a shirt on and grabbed my baseball cap.
We reported to the formation and they pinned Purple Hearts on five of us. Cunningham, Band, Clayton, myself and some other guy, whose name I can’t remember, all got one. Then they got on their choppers and left. Then it was back out to the trash dump.
Editor’s Note: Rodrigues received his Purple Heart at Ft. Sill.
Midway through my tour everything changed. Lt. Parker took over as Battery Commander, and we also got a new First Sergeant, 1st Sgt. Durant. Sgt. Bowman’s tour also had ended, so we got a new ammo section chief, Sgt. King – a “shake and bake” fresh out of NCO school.
There was a marked difference in the way the battery ran under the new command. There was less tension and morale began to improve. Lt Parker and 1st Sgt. Durant didn’t seem to sweat the insignificant details – there was no more spit n’ polish. The important thing to them was that the Battery ran efficiently.
What I appreciated about 1st Sgt. Durant was that he would walk around and talk to all the gun crews to get to know us on a personal level. He would go up in the tower at night to talk to the tower guards to help them stay awake. One night when I was on guard duty he came up to talk to me. There was a rumor that he had been in the Air Force so I questioned him about that. He told me he was in the AF with the Strategic Air Command and his assignment was to babysit one of missile silos out in Nebraska. One day he was on his way to Rapid City for a training course and while in the john at the bus station, someone approached him and asked him what time the bus was leaving? That person thought he was a bus driver because back then the AF uniform looked very similar to the old Greyhound bus driver uniforms. That was too much for him; he got out of the Air Force and joined the Army and quickly made rank of 1st Sgt.
He was in the rear in Na Trang and requested to go out in the field, and lucky him, they sent him to LZ Sherry. I also liked the way 1st Sgt would work with us. When we got a load of ammo, he would line up and help unload just like everyone else.
The WELCOME TO LZ SHERRY sign got knocked down in a ground attack in January and was thrown behind the mess hall where it sat for months. When 1st Sgt Durant noticed it, he had the sign put back up. He collected all the fins that were piled around from mortar attacks and used them to spell out LZ SHERRY.
I never did get to know Sgt King, the ammo section chief because just a few days after his arrival he was bit by a wild cat and was sent back to Na Trang for rabies shots. We were all looking for that cat hoping to get lucky!
A few week after that, Sandage went home, which left me in charge of the ammo section.
The Ammo section was an interesting group of guys. There was Sergeant Bowman, Corporal Sandage, a guy we called Blondie, and me. A month later Pedro Rodriguez and Shirk joined our group. Shirk had a lazy eye that would close all the time, looking out one eye. I asked how he got into the Army, and he said he told the recruiters he wanted to go to Vietnam and they said OK. Rodriguez spoke very broken English, which made it difficult to understand him most of the time. Bowman was a quiet guy from the back hills of North Carolina and Sandage was a good old boy from Tennessee. Blondie was from Wisconsin and of course I was a smartass from Detroit Michigan.
At first I didn’t want to be part of the Ammo section, but as time went on I realized it wasn’t a bad gig. The duties consisted of resupplying ammo to all the gun crews, picking up spent shell casings and unused powder sacks. This made it easy to get to know all the guys in the battery and hear all their gossip. Afterwards we would burn the powder sacks with the trash detail guys and then convoy the spent canisters back to Betty to get more ammo. We would then convoy that ammo back to Sherry to be stored in the ammo bunker before nightfall.
In addition to this, we were in charge of Guard Tower 2. We had to restock the tower with ammo and hand flairs for the night, and make sure the M-60 machine gun and M-79 grenade launcher were in good operating order. We also checked the Claymore mines and trip flares at the base of the tower, and made sure the perimeter wire in front of the tower was in good shape and repaired it if necessary. Then we pulled at least two hours of night guard duty – sometimes more if on alert. So Ammo section was a real workhorse.
When I was still green to the unit, I was so nervous I couldn’t sleep, so I would hang out with the gun crews and help out if I could. Sometimes I would get them their ammo supply before sunrise, if I were still up. I just wanted to make sure we were always ready.
It was unbelievable the rounds they would shoot. We had Fire missions all the time, and if the 101st was on an operation we were up all night. Chinooks would come in with ammo and drop it on the helipad and we had to get it off the pad as quickly as possible. We would form a chain of men and throw the rounds either to the gun crews or to the ammo bunker. We used to worry about mortar rounds coming in and hitting the ammo before we were able to get it under cover.
At times like this, wild things would happen. I remember one time the Battery was in a fire mission while a Chinook was coming in with a sling load of ammo. We were on the helipad with the ammo trucks waiting for the Chinook to come down, when the VC launched a few 122 mm rockets at us. The helicopter was not about to wait around with rockets in-coming, so they just dropped the load of ammo from approximately 20 feet in the air and when it landed on the truck it blew two of the tires.
We realized we had a serious issue, so we crawled on our bellies to get off the helipad because we were thinking they’re going to keep shooting at the Chinook. I shimmied to inside the perimeter and waited. I was thinking, Mama Mia! What more could go on here? When the shooting was over we had to go out and put two tires on the truck. Those 122 mm rockets were the size of a big man’s arm. We were just lucky they didn’t hit anything, especially the ammo on the helipad.
When we took the powder bags out to burn we would put the bags in a pile, break open one of them and make a powder trail. We would then ignite the track and get the hell out of there. When the pile of bags ignited, it was pretty hot.
Not knowing any better, Cunningham, who was on trash detail, threw a white phosphorous grenade in the pile of powder bags, thinking this was a quicker way to get them to ignite. The grenade did not explode right away, so he walked over to it, and then it exploded and sprayed white phosphorous on him. WP burns right through your skin, like a drop of hot grease on butter. They had to medevac him out.
When the gun crews were short handed, we all filled in. On one fire mission (My big chance to be on a gun!) I was the loader and was a little too quick. The assistant gunner had not yet opened the breech when I shoved a point detonating round up against the closed breech. Everybody froze. WHOA! They made me carry the round outside the parapet and change out the fuse.
Two Nice Kids
PFC Percy Lee Gulley and PFC Steve Sherlock were the first to be killed while I was there. That was tragic for all of us.
At times we would get big loads of ammo delivered by Chinook helicopter, as many as 1600 rounds, which we had to get into the ammo bunker by nightfall. This was more than what the Ammo section could handle so we would need extra help to remove it from the helipad. Gulley was a great kid who would always volunteer to help. He was a devout Baptist and carried a Bible in his pocket and was always quoting scripture. I liked him a lot, which is why I think I saved his picture. He was in country less than a month when he died. As far as I know that’s the only picture of him that any of us have.
Sherlock was also a nice kid. He hated doing wire detail and would volunteer for mine sweeping instead. One day when he was on a mine sweep, we had all the trucks lined up for a convoy to Betty, just waiting for the road to get cleared. They were out sweeping the road for our convoy. We saw a puff of black smoke go up and we thought, Oh shit, they must have found a mine. A jeep came racing back to the battery with one of the sweep team who’d been peppered with shrapnel, and he was yelling and screaming, but he didn’t seem to be hurt bad. The jeep picked up Doc Townley and raced him back. In a little while we saw the Medevac helicopter in the air.
One of them had stepped on a mine. I think it had to be Gulley because he was hurt the worst. Sherlock died immediately, but Gulley lived for another 45 minutes or so. Doc Townley told me he held Gulley’s hand and kept telling him everything was going to be OK, even though there was nothing Doc could do for him. Doc held his hand until he died.
After that a heavy cloud fell over the Battery. It was like when Kennedy got shot. Lots of guys had been wounded up to that point but nobody killed, and then two guys died at once. That’s when the morale went a little weird. The joking and teasing pretty much stopped. We realized this isn’t a game, and it was the beginning of a bad time where lots of guys got hurt.
Tom Townley today talks about the help he got from First Sergeant Farrell out at the scene. There was no substitute for the steady hand of a career veteran.
The only fatal casualty before this was PFC Bobby Joe Marsh in March of 1966, over three years prior. Few if any at LZ Sherry knew this.
About a month later, two more guys died on a mobile operation up at Nora. We had two guns up there. They were on a ten round mission when a round out one of the guns exploded over the other gun. Staff Sgt. Johnson and PFC Handshumaker were on that gun and both died. Tommy Mulvihill was part of the gun crew along with Tony Bongi and Leggett. The blast messed all of them up and they got medevac’d out. It wasn’t until they came back to Sherry, after being treated for their wounds, that we got the full story of what took place.
There was a big controversy over whether the round detonated prematurely because of a bad fuse, or was it the fault of the gun crew. After the investigation it was determined that we had a bad batch of fuses, and we pulled them all from the ammo bunker and gun crews and shipped them back to Betty.
PFC Handshumaker was a scary kid, because he was constantly saying that he didn’t think he was going home; that spooked a lot of us. And then he died at Nora.
PFC Cunningham, who had already been injured at the ammo dump, was also on the operation at Nora and in the incident had body parts blown into his face. He was never right after that.
Dolores was my high school sweet heart. A lot of guys put the name of their girlfriends on the front of their ammo truck, so I did the same. When Sgt. Bowman saw it he warned me that First Sergeant Farrell would make me take it off. When First Sergeant saw it he said, “If her name doesn’t begin with a B you got to take it off.” I wasn’t surprised; I guess I just wanted to jack up the First Sergeant a little.
In June Dolores went to California and like for many of us guys, she quit writing me. Later when I was home and I ran in to her I asked her what happened? She said, “I got tired of waiting.”