The highest ranking sergeant in the battery
With few exceptions the people who served with First Sergeant Durant, officers and enlisted, insist he was the best First Sergeant in the history of B Battery. I talk to him by phone and from the start his warmth and instinctive feel for people comes through.
During his time as the ranking sergeant at LZ Sherry he lost seven boys killed in mortar attacks, mine explosions and a tragic firing mishap. He was there for the bloody summer of 1969, when the mortars fell almost constantly and wounded most of the boys there. He asks me if anymore were killed after he left, and I tell him of two more who died.
He talks less about the fighting, and more about personalities and the funny stuff. One story pulls forward another he thought he had forgotten. Throughout he calls the boys under his command “kids.”
I put things out of my mind years ago and don’t talk about it. But about three years ago my daughter came into the room and said, “Captain Parker wants to talk to you.”
I said, “I don’t know any Captain Parker.”
“Well he knows you and would like to talk to you.”
So I got on the phone with him. He said, “This is Captain Parker.”
And I said, “I don’t know any Captain Parker.”
He said, “Damn it, I was your battery commander!”
I said, “Are you talking about Lieutenant Parker?”
He was a lieutenant when he was my battery commander and I couldn’t associate him as a captain.” He was my commanding officer until we could get a replacement after we lost the other commander.
I was 35 in Vietnam; I was grandpa. I’m what you call the old soldier.
I was first in the Air Force for ten years, as a bomb navigation mechanic on the B-47 and then on a Titan One missile launch crew. I was in four years and made staff sergeant, which in the Air Force that’s pretty good. So I reenlisted, and then spent another six years and never got promoted. I thought there’s got to be something else. So I got out of the Air Force and went to work for the Martin Company in Denver on the Titan One missile. After awhile the Air Force came back and got me. I was on the Titan One when Castro tried to go across our blockade. I was sitting there at that console. That was the highest state of readiness we were in since WWII.
So I went into the Army, I had two months of electronics and of all things they put me back in missiles, the Pershing missile system as a surveyor. Then I got promoted to first sergeant in artillery. If you can imagine that, being in survey and getting promoted in artillery. Then I ended up in Vietnam and I couldn’t tell you which end of a howitzer a bullet came out of. And here I am an artillery first sergeant. I thought, Boy oh boy.
I ask how he adjusted to the job not knowing anything about artillery.
So I learned a lot at Sherry … tell me about it!
I asked questions. When I got there we got mortared all the time, every third night, and you were out there every night with the guns firing perimeter defense. You just sit there and you talk to the guys. This is how you cut powder charges: charge 7 you leave all seven bags in the canister. Shooting a charge five, you cut two off. And you sit and you listen. This is fuse quick, this is air burst. You listen and pretty soon you got a pretty good damn idea of what’s going on. What type rounds they’re shooting and how they’re doing it and all that.
I was fortunate, I never had any young officers come in and start giving orders. I’m glad for their sake. Nobody ever did that. You know, we were there to protect one another. If you didn’t work together at Sherry, you weren’t there too damn long.
They always sent the duds and shit and the trouble makers to Sherry. If they were doing drugs and that, they sent them to Sherry. I just happened to be in the rear area at Phan Rang and one son of a bitch lobbed a fuckin’ M79 grenade in our hooch, into the senior hooch. (It did not go off.) We chased the bastard down, and two days later I’m back at the firebase, and guess who comes in? The same kid, and he already had the name Frag. (Andy Kach had given him the name minutes before on the chopper pad.)
We had a little talk and I said, “Let me tell you something, little man. You can frag my ass, but if you do, (points around) this guy’s gonna kill ya, and this guy’s gonna kill ya, and this guy’s gonna kill ya, because we all look out for one another. You got your fuckin’ choice. You can straighten out and be a soldier, and do what you are supposed to do, and cooperate and graduate, and you’ll be all right. You fuck up and you’re gonna get shot.” That’s all there was to it. That was ol’ Frag. And you know, he turned out to be a good soldier.
Then we had another kid come out from the rear who was dealing drugs. He was one that didn’t listen. He lasted one day. During a mortar attack, he’s running around outside with nothing on, no helmet, no flack jacket, lookin’ at all the explosions. He looked too long, because one of them got him. It just about blew his brains out. Took the top of his head off. We Medevac’d him. He’ll never be anything but a vegetable.
His name was John J. Cunnane, a single guy from Germany. When he got to Sherry, I don’t think John had ever been in the sun, he was as white as the fallen snow. And then you put him in them camouflage shorts, and them combat boots, and that helmet and flack jacket. We’re under attack, and you see John running around with that pistol hanging half way down to his ankles. It was the funniest sight in the world. He looked like a snow man in camouflage.
When I got to Sherry we had a lot of ham, to where you got sick of it. I asked him why that was and he said because it didn’t spoil. Because we didn’t gave any refrigeration we had to eat perishables right away and ham was the only meat that kept. “You get me a reefer,” he said, “and we’ll eat a lot better.” I still had a lot of contacts in the Air Force back in Phan Rang who I did a lot of transferring back and forth with, if you know what I mean. I’ll give you this if you give me that. So we got a reefer for the mess sergeant and pretty soon we had steaks and burgers, and we even had ice cream for the kids. I’m proud of that.
We got hit one night, and I ran to the mess sergeant’s hooch to see where he was – everybody checked on everybody else at Sherry – I opened the door and see blood all over everything and he wasn’t there. It panicked the hell out of me. So I’m out looking for him, and I hear him screaming down at the end of the mess hall. He’s got the KPs chewing gum to plug holes in his water cans from shrapnel.
What I thought was blood in his hooch was ketchup. Ketchup was hard to get and he was storing it in his hooch lined it up along the wall. A mortar round landed right beside his hooch, the blast went through the little window and busted up all the ketchup. Then I come in thinking it’s blood. Of course afterward I laughed.
When I got there Commo section was in charge of sweeping for mines. When we lost the two kids, (Percy Gulley and Steve Sherlock) I was still back in the rear. But shortly thereafter I was sent to Sherry. The commo section was a little leery, which you could understand. So I said, I don’t think that’s fair, we’re all going to learn how to sweep for fuckin’ mines. I had a class, and I taught all the section chiefs how to sweep for mines. The battery commander would go sweep for mines; I would sweep for mines; The XO would sweep for mines; and we switched off. We all would go out and sweep for mines, which I thought was a lot better deal. When you had your XO sweeping for mines, and the company commander sweeping, it boosted morale. It gave the commo section a break. And the guys accepted it, that was the main thing.
For The Kids
First Sergeant Durant was always looking to make things a little better for his kids.
When anybody came from the rear you were supposed to be in your jacket with your helmet, with your flack jacket laying there with your weapon and gas mask. When I got there I thought, this is ridiculous. Out there in that hot sun with them jackets and fatigues. I said, “You don’t have to wear that, you can go in your tee shirt, you don’t need to wear your helmet in the daytime, but it should be laying there with your flack jacket. But let me tell you something. Anytime anybody sees a chopper coming in here, they better be in proper uniform.” I tell you, it worked great. Whenever anybody come in, we all had our shirts and helmets on. Then when they left everybody took everything off.
I also made Sunday a stand down. Breakfast was late, from eight o’clock to 11. The only people who had to do anything on Sunday, the ammo section would resupply the guns, the gun crews would be on standby, and Lt. Clark would lay the battery in the morning (set the precise orientation of the howitzers). In the afternoon the mess sergeant would barbeque hot dogs and hamburgers. If we were lucky enough to scrounge steaks from the Air Force or Navy, we’d had steaks and beer, and the kids played volleyball. We got away from the war for a day anyway.
It came in at night. The tower out by the dump sighted something and they started shooting in that direction. After that there was a big explosion maybe 80 yards off that tower. Now everybody’s up. Next thing we heard from the tower was, “GAS.” At night everybody wore (carried) their gas masks on their hip. When you heard “GAS” you put your mask on, and you laid down and you watched to see if somebody was going to try to come in behind that. You waited for a star cluster. If a white one went off, that meant dicks in the wire. If a green went off, that meant they were insider our perimeter. Everybody was supposed to drop down, nobody was supposed to move and anybody that was moving, you shot them. The red star meant we were shooting a beehive. The direction the red star was going meant the direction the beehive was going. It’s coming our way, so get down and watch your ass.
We waited for someone to come in behind the gas, but they never did. We had mortars that night, couple rounds but nothing great, and no ground attack. But you just never knew.
The next morning we went to find out where they had blown the CS gas (military grade tear gas). They had also planted a mine out there and we’re tromping around the area. Luckily the fire from the gas explosion had burnt the trip wire to the mine, and we just blew it in place.
I’m trying to remember the funny stuff. I guess the gas attack was funny because nothing happened afterward.
Every night we would wait for Chickenman to come on the radio. All the guys would have their radios on and then you’d hear, “And now, the exciting adventures of CHICKENMAN.”
Double click below and see if these don’t bring back memories.
How Chickenman Came To Be:
The Chicken Missile, something we could have used at Sherry.
For all the Chickenman episodes go to: http://www.radioechoes.com/chicken-man#.VGjxXodStih
You know, we never got a lot of things at Sherry. If we needed a generator, we could never get one. But when we’d run a convoy, we always went in with trucks to get ammo and water. Everybody would say, “Look, get me this, or get me that, and bring it back.” On one trip one of our guys stole a 50 caliber machine gun. (It was not on the shopping list. Tommy Mulvihill saw it unattended and simply loaded it on his truck, thinking you can always use another 50 cal.)
Guess who was out to see us the next day? CID (Criminal Investigation Command).
“They said, “Did you guys take a 50 caliber machine gun?”
We said, “Oh no, we would never do anything like that.”
“Right. Where’s it at?”
“Well, it’s over here. You can have it back. Don’t know how it got here. It dropped in I guess.”
But that’s how we got a lot of our supplies.
The Well That Wasn’t
I remember when we dug a well there, or tried to dig a well. That was a big joke, funnier’n hell. We got a drill right there beside the old mess sergeant’s hooch. We drilled down and hit some water, and I got me a pump from the Air Force, put that pump down in the ground there and that son of a bitch pumped up about two minutes worth of water.
I went out every night and sat with each gun crew and bullshit with them, or reassure them, or whatever you had to do. You might fire some perimeter fire with them. Then you’d move onto the next gun, and bullshit with them. But I did not want to get too close. What I mean is, those were all my kids. I did not want to know that you’re married and are going to see your wife next month. Because if you weren’t there tomorrow, that really bothered me.
I had a kid do that. I never got tight with any of them except my driver. Paul Dunne. I’d go out at night, and he’d be in a tower and we’d sit and he’d talk. He’d say, In December I’m going in to see my girl in Hawaii and we’re gonna get married. And my dad’s a preacher.
We were due to run a convoy, and I was running it. Paul had the jeep all fixed up and ready to go: radios, weapons and everything. Commo section came over and said, “Hey look, can we run the convoy. Guys want to go in and get this and do that. Rather than you run it, let us run the convoy.”
I said, “OK. I guess you can go ahead and run it.” So I told Paul I said, “Go take all that shit back off the jeep because Commo’s running the convoy.”
He said, “Look First Sergeant, I’m all loaded up, I’ve got everything set. Why don’t I just run with them today.”
I said, “Well, if you want to.”
He got killed that day. They hit that mine and it killed him and wounded some other guys. And that really, really bothered me. So I knew the guys, but I didn’t want to know your personal life. It’s harder when you do that.
When I went to Washington with Hank Parker and Andy Kach and Jim Kustes, and we’re talking and Parker said, “You know what I remember about you?”
“No, I sure don’t.”
He said, “You remember when you used to come around and talk to us at night??
“Yeah, I remember. I used to talk to all the gun crews.”
“Remember when you told me about the snipes? When you were a kid you used to go snipe hunting. That’s what I remember. But I still don’t understand them snipes.”