Monthly Archives: November 2014

Hank Parker – Battery Commander – Part Ten

Cover 2
Cover 2


Part Ten

 Skeleton Crew

After the departure of our captain the night of the August 12 attacks, I take over as battery commander. I am still a first lieutenant, but four weeks later move up to captain. During that period the battalion commander comes out to Sherry to give me a Purple Heart for wounds I got at LZ Betty seven months earlier.

Now we are dangerously shorthanded at LZ Sherry. Two guns and their crews are still out at Outpost Nora. We lost another gun and ten men on August 12. That on top of the losses from the pounding we’d taken during July and early August. So out of a full strength battery of six guns and 120 guys, we’re down to three guns and 67 guys at Sherry. A full gun crew is eight guys, and we are struggling to find four for a gun. We have to suspend R&Rs, and I can’t send guys back to Betty who are not badly injured. Can you imagine when you’ve got that few men and you have to run a convoy? That’s leaving the battery really vulnerable. Fortunate for us the enemy never wanted to make a daytime attack.

Replacements are coming in, but they know nothing about artillery. That’s when I start to train cooks, motor pool technicians, fire direction people, and even the radar guys on how to handle a howitzer, especially direct fire with beehive (tube lowered to level and loaded with a fleshette round). I fully expect we were going to have to use them against a ground attack. I move a howitzer to the perimeter where we can practice. We have contests sighting directly through the bore of the tube to hit a target, and on one occasion a cook wins.

I am nervous and wound tight. When the sun sets I start moving the Duster 40 mm cannons and Quad 50 machine guns because I know that gives the enemy pause. They’re not going to come in under a Quad 50, or even a Duster. The crews get ticked at me over moving every night because they like to settle down in their little hooches. I say, “Hey, this is for your protection too.”

In the middle of the day I see a group of Vietnamese men and women out in the rice paddies digging like it is a burial. I suspect it’s not, so I lower a howitzer, bore site it, put a round in and I fired right over their heads. The shell explodes maybe a hundred yards behind them. The message was you can’t do that in the daytime, and if you do it at night I’m going to put the round on top of you. The province chief raises hell with my superiors at Betty because we are under orders not to fire at anyone unless first fired at. I get a call, “You don’t do that.”

I say, “I will do that. My job is to protect my battery.” Had shrapnel hit them I probably would have gone to jail.

Always, always I stress with the guys how vulnerable we are. A little example, we take our laundry into Phan Thiet to Liz, a beautiful French-Vietnamese woman in a purple dress. I know she takes note of the names on the uniforms and that information is passed on. Only a few guys don’t want to pay the extra few bucks and do their own laundry. I tell the guys the enemy knows exactly how many people we have and they know us by name. Remember the Viet Cong own this area. We got to be sharp.

August 28

 Again an accurate mortar attack. The first round hits the trail of Gun 5, knocking out the gun and causing casualties. Andy Kach is with PFC Rodriquez in the guard tower returning fire when a mortar hits on the sandbags in the tower and blows both of them to the ground, maybe 20 feet below. Rodriguez is blinded by the sand, which is not unusual. Guys would be peppered when the mortar exploded in the ground, and that can be a serious injury. I know for Rodriquez it is. He takes it full in the face and now is buried under a pile of sandbags. Andy brings Rodriquez to the medic and then returns to the tower. He digs out the M60 machine gun and continues to lay down a base of fire. That is an individual act of valor because now if the enemy are going to get in they have to deal with his machine gun.

That is when I say to Doc, “Can he still manage a gun?”

Doc says, “I think so.”

I ask Andy, “Can you go back to duty?”

He says, “Yes sir, I can do it.”

I do not realize the significance of his injuries because they are not visible. They are in his jaw and teeth. In a day or two his jaw is swollen and he can’t eat, so I send him back to Phan Thiet, and then to Phan Rang for treatment.

Andy and the guy hurt on Gun 5 eventually come back to the battery, but Rodriguez goes to the states for treatment and never returns. For now we’re down another three guys. Soon after we have another attack that wounds Judson, our barber, and we send him to the rear. We’re down to half strength and under constant attack, but I love this little firebase. I am a captain now and assume I can continue as battery commander. Let me keep the battery, I am feeling. But that’s not the Army’s way. 

USS Boston

 Two weeks after I am made captain they send me to the battalion Tactical Operations Center at Betty. I clear grids and coordinate the fire of seven artillery batteries, standard fare for that job. But I am also put on orders as an aerial observer (AO – does reconnaissance and calls in artillery fire – a dangerous job). I have survived the war so far; I’ve been a forward observer out with two infantry battalions, I’ve been a battery commander, I’ve done my duty. Normally you don’t need official orders to be an AO, you just go out and do it. But this is for a specific mission to fire the USS Boston, a heavy Naval cruiser. The mission is going to take place in a week and I’ve only got 30 days to do, I’m short. I say, “No I am not going to be an AO. Let Lieutenant Bud Domagata do it. He’s our AO. Hell, I’m a captain now!” They want me because I had walked the target area as an forward observer and they want the AO to be someone who knows the area and can adjust fire.

They fly me out to the USS Boston in a little helicopter.

USS Boston taken on my ride out the first time Titty Mountain in the background off her stern
USS Boston taken on my ride out
Titty Mountain in the background off her stern

I’m in my jungle fatigues and I’ve got my maps and compass and grease pencil. As I set foot on deck they salute me and say, “Good morning, lieutenant.” I think, can’t these guys see I’ve got captain’s bars? (In the Navy a lieutenant is of equal rank to an Army and Air Force captain.) They take me to the mess hall where I have breakfast with the commander. There is crystal and china, and you have Filipino waiters in little white jackets serving coffee. I’m thinking, What is this?

After breakfast we go to the war room, and I’ve never seen so much rank in my life, so many stars on uniforms. I get out my grease pencil and my map covered in plastic. The commander says, “No lieutenant, here.” An enormous map drops down from the ceiling, the biggest I’ve ever seen, and he hands me a pointer. I show him the target grids and what we’re going to do. He says, “You’re going to be the spotter, right?”

“Apparently I am, sir.” I did not tell him that I did a little aerial reconnaissance in Hawaii, but I had never called in live fire from the air in Vietnam, much less from a naval cruiser. In fact I had never even been up in an airplane in Vietnam, always helicopters.

We fly over the area and I cannot believe it. This is a major NVA staging area. It looks like ants swarming around trucks and ammo dumps. Trail heads are fortified with heavy weapons and probably mined. I call in the first salvo and when it fires I think the ship has blown up. I mean it’s her six eight-inch guns all firing at the same time, making a ball of fire so big you can’t see the ship. The pilot says, “Holy shit.” This is his first time too doing this kind of thing. I think I feel the plane move as the rounds go by us. It scares the beejeesus out of me. I say over the headset to the pilot, “We better go higher.” Which we do, while I reach for my rosary.

The rounds are on target. I see secondary explosions, ammo blowing, petrol burning. We blow the shit out of all of it. I have never been directly over my target like that. The term awesome is used too often, but to see this is indeed AWESOME. Her call sign is Mauler, and now I know why.

Back on ship I say to the skipper, “Sir, is there anything else I can do for you?”

He says, “Yes lieutenant, there is. Can you possibly get me an AK-47?”

“Yes sir, I can get you an AK.” I go back to Betty and arrange for my AK-47 to get sent to the Boston.

Later I am back on the ship and the skipper says, “Now can I do anything for you?”

“Yes sir, you can. Have you got any steaks?”

He says, “We got a lot of steaks, lieutenant. How many you need?”

I say, “How many have you got?”

He says, “This is our last mission and we’re going back to the States. I can empty my meat lockers for you.” I bring enough steaks back to feed the guys at Betty, Sherry, I think even Sandy.

In Conclusion 


 I leave Vietnam with a Purple Heart, the only medal from my tour. I know Colonel Crosby (battalion commander) told me he was putting me in for a Silver Star, and Captain Wrazen said he was putting me in for a Bronze Star. But when it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I’m OK; they did their best.

I go to Ft. Sill where I am an artillery instructor. I come in in from a field maneuver and they say, “There’s an awards ceremony at noon. Come to it.” The person getting the medal ends up being me. I get a Bronze Star with V Device for Valor. Then more medals dribble in. I get another Bronze Star with V Device, but I cannot wear it on my uniform or the first one either, because the Army has to issue another medal with an oak leaf cluster on the ribbon indicating two medals. Then I get another Bronze Star, and have to do it all over again, but this time get a medal with two oak leaf clusters on the ribbon. So I’ve got five Bronze Star Medals laying around, but the only one that counts and the only one I can wear is the one with the V Device for Valor and two oak leaf clusters. Personnel is in a tizzy straightening out the flurry of new orders this entails (paperwork accompanying the medal and authorizing the medal).

I get two Army Commendation Medals. Same drill: can’t wear either medal, have to get a third with the oak leaf cluster and Correction DD 215s. I get another Purple Heart medal because the one I got at LZ Sherry was given to me without the orders, and now they have to give it to me again, this time with the paperwork. By now Personnel hates me, and it’s getting a little embarrassing for me too.

It gets worse. Each time a new medal comes they do not reissue your DD 214 (discharge papers indicating medals earned). Instead they give you a separate document called a DD 215, which corrects the DD 214. So I keep getting these Correction DD 215s in the mail.

In March of 1971 I go back to Vietnam. In less than a month when I am out with the infantry I step on a mine. It’s pretty bad and they Medevac me to Chu Lai for the first of multiple surgeries. I wake up in a bed right across from a North Vietnamese Army soldier. We both have IVs in our arms and we both lay there staring at one another, neither one willing to go to sleep. From there they send me to Da Nang, and from there to Japan.

This is one of my favorite pictures of myself because it is the last shot of my healthy left foot.

Last Picture of Foot Of course I get another Purple Heart and go through the drill of getting a third one with an oak leaf cluster. More important, and I am proud of this, I earn the Combat Infantry Badge. (Medal given to infantry who come into direct contact with the enemy, and highly prized) The infantry higher ups do not want to give it to me, saying I am artillery. But I am organic to the unit with an infantry MOS (official military occupational specialty). I’m now infantry. I’ve got a ton of artillery in my background, but I’m infantry and they have to give it to me.

In 1998, long after I am long out of the Army, the Silver Star comes through, for action at LZ Betty in February of 1969. At the same time I learn I had been awarded the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star, dated April 20, 1971 – for service during my second tour in Vietnam. Then in 2002 the Army issues me a brand new DD 214 with all the corrections on one page.

After Word

 In later years I go to see the Navy commander to whom I had given my AK-47, Captain Raymond Komorowski. I want to get the serial number off the AK in order to research what happened to the guy I captured. Unfortunately Commander Komorowski has suffered a stroke and is depressed. His son has taken it off the wall out of concern for his father’s safety, because it still had the loaded banana clip in it. He has given the AK to the local police department. I go to the police department with my request, that I only want the serial number. They say they do not have it and furthermore have no record of it. One of them I know has the AK in his collection and is telling war stories over it.

Captain Hank Parker – Battery Commander – Part Nine

BoysofBatteryB_Front - Version 3


Part Nine

The Empty Parapet

July is a tough month with mortar attacks almost every night and casualties mounting. We start a policy that you have to wear your steel pot and flak jacket 24/7. It is miserably hot, but when you are outside you have to have them on and we enforce that.

With less than a week to go in Vietnam Lieutenant Monahan is standing in the middle of the battery. Bullets start flying, popping up sand around his feet. Here’s another rude awakening that this is a GD dangerous combat zone and you can be killed day or night until you leave. Chuck leaves LZ Sherry just before the attacks that kill Theodus “Yodo” Stanley and Howard “Howie” Pyle Jr., and wound eight others. (August 12, 1969) I hated to see him go because he and I were the only officers basically running the battery.

The evenings start with such beautiful sunsets, lovely, but when the sun sets I get migraine headaches. Miserable. I go to the beer hooch and get a little liquid courage, knowing I’m going to get up, put on my steel pot and flak jacket and go around to the guns and up in the towers and talk to the guys. If they are having difficulties they tell me – with a girlfriend or a situation at home. I need my flashlight with me, oh God, how dark it gets. I am petrified walking around at night knowing what is out there, and waiting for the rounds to fall.

I tell the guys on all the guns that we’re in an area where there is significant infiltration, and we’re talking battalions. We’re not talking little squads of black pajama’d Viet Cong, we’re talking regular People’s Army of North Vietnam, thousands of them. They know what they are doing and they want to get us. Most importantly we need to be prepared to lower those tubes for direct fire if there is a ground attack. I tell the gun chiefs to have fuses cut and ready for beehive rounds for direct fire.

I stop to chat with Sergeant Groves and his crew on Gun 2. I am close to him, because he is a nitpicker, and let me tell you, if you trained on Rik Groves’ gun you are never going to be wrong on your deflection (direction) or elevation on your howitzer, and you are never going to put the wrong powder charge in. I know because when fire missions were going on I would go around and check the deflection and elevation on the guns to make sure we were doing it right. There are a couple guns I have to watch, a little bit sloppy with deflection and elevation. I tell them, “There’s no room for error. The slightest error in deflection or elevation when it goes six miles out it’s enough to hit and kill the wrong people.” (A deflection error of one degree results in an impact error of 185 yards at six miles.) I never worry about Guns 2 and 3 – or Gun 5 where Dave Fitchpatrick is chief. He’s fun loving and runs a tight crew.

I always stop to talk with Corporal Howie Pyle (crew chief on Gun 3, which is base piece in the center of the gun emplacements and the gun on which firing data is figured for all the guns). When I was a Forward Observer I would come to Sherry and make a special point of talking to Howie. His gun was base piece and I wanted to make sure that he knew what he was doing, and his crew knew what they were doing. Well he showed me, and they were good. I got to know his crew, and I could always depend on them, especially when I called in first round high explosive.

Howie is two years younger and has some college like me. He is genuinely interested in what I did as an forward observer out in the field with the infantry. He is bright, articulate, and has the respect of his men. I tell him he could be in my shoes and I could be in his. I say, “You have the brightness and the ability, you just chose not to go to officer school.” We talk about our families. His father was WWII, and my father was post occupation WWII. We share stories like that.

Sometimes Tommy Mulvihill joins us. The two of them are best friends. They are both from around New York City and tell me Howie is from Pleasantville near Sleepy Hollow, and Tommy is from Hicksville. I say, “You guys are pulling my leg. Those aren’t real places.” (They are.)

The first attack comes in the early morning hours and the second comes late at night. I am fairly certain we are being attacked by a North Vietnamese Army crew that knows how to fire mortars, because in both attacks they walk them right through the battery.

My memory compresses the two attacks into one, even though they come over 20 hours apart. In the early dark I hear a mortar pop from its tube, I know the mortar is on the way, I run out yelling, INCOMING. The crews are now manning their guns and I am between Guns 2 and 3 conducting a crater analysis taking the back azimuth. I see gun 2 getting hit and I see Stanley go down. Sergeant Groves is wounded in the neck. His face is ashen white just like his hair. He goes down and cradles Stanley while holding his own neck, trying to stop the both of them from bleeding.

As I say, my mind compresses everything, and now I look over at Corporal Pyle on base piece. He gives me a quick grin like he always does, his eyes bright and sharp. Just as he’s smiling I see the round hit the platform under the gun. I see Howie and his entire crew go down. The ground is shaking, the dirt is flying. Again I smell the cordite mixed with blood.

Seconds become minutes, and minutes become hours. Time slows and I see things in slow motion. First Sergeant Durant and others are there taking care of the guys and yelling MEDIC, MEDIC. Doc comes. Tommy is immediately over on Gun 3. He takes Howie away from Durant and holds him. Mortars are still falling. One guy is writhing in pain. Another I push his wound closed and tell him to hold it. He says, “Am I going to be OK?”

I say, “Yeah, you’re going to be OK,” but I don’t believe it. I think all those guys will die. I’ve never seen so much blood in my life.

The tires on Gun 3 are blown but it is still functional. You can put a round in the tube, you bet, so it’s still good for direct fire. I am afraid this is the night they are going to try to come in, so we manhandle the gun out of its sandbag parapet and drag it to the perimeter. I get available guys and we pull it out by the helipad in the direction of the streambed. That part of the perimeter is a weak point. Fortunately we’ve got beehive rounds already prepared. The Dusters’ 40 mm cannons are firing, the Quad 50 machine guns are firing, the towers are firing. I am fully prepared to see a ground attack, because their mortar fire has knocked out two guns and the mortars are still coming down. Through it all I am amazed at the efficiency of our artillerymen. They are able to provide counter fire, take care of the wounded, and secure the perimeter. No ground attack comes that night because – and I firmly believe this – our counter mortar fire prevented any ground attack they may have planned.

When things finally go quiet and the battery is secure and we’ve cared for the dead and wounded, I go back to the empty Gun 3 parapet. I get a lawn chair and a six pack of beer and sit down. I make it clear I want to be alone. I want to mourn. That’s when the full emotional impact hits me, all the casualties we suffered. I have my M-16 and .45 pistol with me. I am drinking and firing into the air and screaming at the enemy, “Lucky shot, come on and let me see you do it again.” Just angry, angry, and I want to fight. I drink a lot of beer that night and fire a lot of rounds at nobody.

Of all people, here comes Tommy Mulvihill. He walks up to me and says, “Lieutenant, you OK?”

I say, “I don’t know yet. This hurts.” Like it or not I am their leader and to loose two gun crews is a failure in leadership. I take it personally. I’ve grown close to Rik and Howie and Theo and the guys wounded who I think are going to die. I am suffering. Yet here is Tommy Mulvihill who just lost his best friend and he’s concerned about me. He’s the only one with the guts and the balls to come talk to me. And that moves me. Passion and concern for me, am I OK?

Theodus (Yodo) Stanley
Theodus (Yodo) Stanley
Howie (Gomer) Pyle
Howie (Gomer) Pyle

At that moment, a profound moment, I recognize that I have had the distinct honor of working with some of the best people in the world and that B Battery at LZ Sherry is special. When I saw the compassion and the warmth and the tenderness that these guys provided for one another amid the carnage, I was moved and drew closer to these men. And I vow at that moment that there will never be a gun back in this parapet. It is now sacred ground. Stanley didn’t die here, but here is the memorial to all of the fallen this night.

On the last Medevac helicopter out that night I am surprised to see our battery commander, The Ghost, getting on the skid of the helicopter to leave. I look at him and he looks back at me. I am puzzled. I put my hand up and say, “What are you doing? Where are you going?” I don’t see him again until a year later at Ft. Sill.

First Sergeant Durant later tells me he had called the battalion sergeant major about our battery commander. Durant was always out doing crater analysis by himself during mortar attacks when the captain should have been with him. Durant said to him, “Sergeant Major, you get me somebody out here who is at least going to go out with me during the attacks.”

My guess is the captain was relieved after the August 12 attack, or he asked to be moved. I don’t find a problem with that. If a person does not have the command ability or the command presence in combat situations, that’s something you have or you don’t have. If you don’t have it I think it’s wise to work somewhere else. I’m sure that’s what they did with this captain.

I, along with a lot of other guys, wonder why the round that fell on Gun 3 was so deadly. I’d never seen a round take out that many people that quickly. Pyle had a puncture wound that came out his back. Doc Townley said it looked almost like a fleshette wound. But they didn’t make fleshettes rounds for mortars. Typically we’re used to mortars coming in and hitting in the sand, burying and then exploding. This mortar hit the wood platform under the gun. It exploded higher in the air than if it had hit sand, shooting medal shrapnel through the air and creating secondary shrapnel in the form of large wood splinters. The combination was especially lethal. My yelling “lucky shot” in the parapet that night was probably correct.

Mortar shrapnel 4" long and razor sharp Courtesy Bob Christenson
Mortar shrapnel 4″ long and razor sharp
Courtesy Bob Christenson

After August 12 it’s as if my mind stops recording. I don’t remember anything about the next couple of days. I don’t even remember the memorial service that was held in the mess hall. I remember the rifles and the helmets and boots planted in the ground as memorials, but not the actual service.

Gun 3 parapet stood empty in the center of the battery for the remainder of B Battery’s time in Vietnam. Likewise no howitzer was ever again labeled Gun 3.

Captain Hank Parker – Battery Commander – Part Eight

Publisher's Cover Design
Publisher’s Front and Back Cover Design

Hank Parker


Recon By Fire

 When infantry companies come in from the field to relax and rest, they always provide perimeter support for whatever firebase they are at. They do guard duty, and they man bunkers and towers, which generally is no big deal at a rear area like LZ Betty. There was no way they want to stand down at Sherry because they see us getting hit with mortar attacks so often. “Hell no,” I’ve heard them say, “it’s too dangerous.”

That’s why Durant and I start doing patrols around the battery. I tell Durant I know how to do this, I been out there on foot a lot. I take six to eight guys out – squad size – and do recon by fire. You shoot into the tree line and see if anybody shoots back. Primarily I’m looking for any locations on the surface from which mortars have been fired or telltale evidence of troop movements.

Andy Kach still talks about this crazy lieutenant taking artillery guys out on patrol.

It is effective because the enemy has to reconsider what they are doing, because we’d been out there, which forces them to do a reconnaissance to see if we put any mines there. For awhile it slows down the attacks. One time along the creek bed that runs on the west side of our perimeter we find where a mortar baseplate had been set. I get my grease pencil out and the map from when I was with the infantry and mark that spot. I come back in and I give the coordinates to Fire Direction Control with orders to shoot on that spot during the night. I think we damaged a few enemy crews that way because the mortars begin falling outside the wire, as if there are inexperienced guys out there. 

Outpost Nora

 We’ve got two guns on an airmobile operation at a miserable little outpost named Nora north of Titty Mountain. (Also known as Whiskey Mountain and home to a variety of observation posts, radio relay stations, search lights, and units of both infantry and engineers.) We are quite a ways out from Sherry. Nora is a rock pile, you can’t dig a hole there. The Vietnamese are all around us, food and everything else out on the ground making the sanitary conditions deplorable. The rats are the size of little dogs. We sleep under steel culverts. Tommy Mulvihill and some of the guys have air mattresses. I don’t know where in the hell they got them, but I know I don’t have one. I am on rocks. When we get a fire mission I pop up and hit my head on that metal culvert ceiling, knock myself silly.

Deluxe accommodations  but still smiling
Deluxe accommodations but still smiling

We get our SP packs (toiletries, cigarettes and candy given to soldiers in the field), and we hand out candy to all the kids. Whole families come.

Monahan and Parker handing out candy
Monahan and Parker handing out candy at Nora

I am there to replace Monahan, and when he goes back to the battery it becomes scary because all of a sudden I’m in charge of two guns. Scary because I cannot go to somebody else and say, “What do you think?” That proves not to be the case, because I can go to Sgt. Jimmy Johnson who is a veteran sergeant and in command of the two gun crews. A great guy. And I’ve got Tommy Mulvihill as crew chief on the gun outside my culvert, so I figure I’m in good shape after all.

On this particular night the maneuver elements are working and we’re shooting fire missions in support of the infantry, the 3/506 Currahees again and the 44th South Vietnamese Regiment. They are in quite a bit of contact with the enemy. There is a B 52 strike and, oh man, it shakes the ground and I would not want to be under that.

We are firing artillery for Lieutenant Alex Taubinger, who replaced me in the field as forward observer. He is on Titty Mountain calling in the mission. The fire is under a BATTERY 3 command (both guns firing three rounds in rapid succession without intervening commands). The first volley does not sound right and I come charging out of my hooch yelling, “CHECK FIRE, CHECK FIRE.” (the command to cease firing immediately) It is too late. The lanyard is already half pulled when Tommy and I have eye contact and BOOM, the round explodes right out of the barrel. It blows me off my feet as I watch the gun crew go down. Everybody is flattened on the ground. Then I get myself up and see, oh my God, the other gun is hit too. The tires are flat and the breech is locked with a round in it. I say not to open it because the round might go off. I see that Sergeant Johnson and Lloyd Handshumaker have been killed. Tony Bongi is wounded. Tommy is severely wounded. Leggett, a nice quiet guy, is wounded.

Bongi, Mulvihill, Leggett at Nora
Bongi, Mulvihill, Leggett at Nora

Immediately I’m posting guys on the perimeter to make sure we’ve got security for the guns. We’re getting the wounded together along with the dead. A Vietnamese father comes with his little girl and he’s got an M16 pointed at me like he’s going to shoot me and he’s screaming in Vietnamese and I don’t understand him. I’m thinking, Can’t you see I’ve lost men here? I look him in the eyes and use the Vietnamese phrase I am so good at, “Dung lai, di di.” Stop, go away fast.

Half an hour earlier we had gotten mail. Jimmy Johnson gets a letter from home which he reads to me. His wife is pregnant. And she had received notification – he’s learning this for the first time – that he’s going to get an early out from Vietnam to go to Officer Candidate School. Thirty minutes later he’s dead.

After we get the dead and wounded Medevac’d out, it’s necessary to keep the men there who can function. If they can still pull a trigger and fight a battle, I keep them. I always feel bad keeping wounded with me, and I always ask, “Can you fight?” If he says yes he stays. Tony Bongi is one of those, and his wound isn’t a scratch. He has shrapnel in him.

The cruelty of war is you’re going to take casualties, people are going to die and get hurt. As the man in charge I bear the responsibility for that. I’m thinking, what in the hell did I do wrong here?

The following morning they send out an investigation team. I take the opportunity to send Tony and another fellow back on the helicopter that brought in the inspection team. The investigating officer walks out to the gun, looks at it, checks the elevation (vertical angle at which the tube is set), bore sights it and says, “Well this is obvious. You didn’t lay the guns right. It didn’t clear the sandbags.”

I say, “Jesus Christ, the tires are flat. What are you talking about?”

Then I am told it was faulty powder because of the way the rounds had been stored. I say, “No, the powder is in bags and they are not stored in the canister.” He doesn’t even know that there are seven powder bags per round, that’s how little he knows.

They are concerned with who are we going to blame. They’re going to pin it on me, when they should be thinking here’s an officer who has just been through a traumatic event with men killed and wounded. They open a formal Article 32 investigation on me (investigation prior to court martial). I know there was nothing wrong with that gun. It’s Tommy Mulvihill’s gun and that gun was laid right. The tube was at the right elevation and all other settings were right. We’d had some movement on the wire earlier and fired it without any problems.

It is devastating to know I am being investigated, but the war goes on and we’ve got to support the infantry. At that juncture the only weapon I have now is a Vietnamese four deuce mortar (4.2 inch diameter round), which we use even though it won’t reach over 2,000 yards (compared to the 7 mile range of the 105 mm howitzer).

Vietnamese 42 mm mortar at Nora The only remaining weapon
Vietnamese 4.2 inch mortar at Nora
The only remaining weapon

After the investigation we learn the cause of the mishap was a faulty fuse (the tip of the projectile controlling detonation), which Corps had known about. Instead of radioing the information to all affected units they were sending out paperwork via helicopter. The information had not yet reached us. I am cleared and happy to learn it was beyond my control. When the crews rotated I also rotated back to Sherry. The howitzers were repaired and stayed there at Nora.


The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC has a web page where friends and loved ones can post messages and pictures. In 2009 I discovered a picture there of Sergeant Jimmy Johnson which his wife Linda had posted. I wrote her and told her that Sergeant Johnson was a hero in my eyes and that he routinely read her letters to me, including the one he received just minutes before he died. She called me, and we’ve been in touch ever since. His daughter’s name is Lisa and I periodically get an email from her as well.

Staff Sergeant James Johnson
Staff Sergeant James Johnson