I replaced Hank Parker as the FO with D Company of the 3/506 Infantry right after Captain Wrazen was killed (Battle of LZ Betty, February 22). The new company commander who replaced Wrazen I’ll call “Captain K.”
Captain K liked to walk trails. Everybody tried to tell him when walking a train you walk about ten yards off the trail. He’d say, “No, no. When I was with the 1st Cavalry we always walked on the trails – to get their quicker.” As a result he was the only one who walked down the middle of the trail. The rest of us walked off the trail.
Battleship New Jersey
Just south of LZ Betty we had a free strike area, which meant you could fire on anything you saw moving. The Battleship New Jersey had fired into that area, and we went down there to do damage assessment and crater analysis. On the way we saw this big mound, a VC burial pile. Captain K had people dig it up and count the bodies. We did not dig it all up, just enough to guestimate the bodies. He called in a body count of 20 VC KIA.
As we approached the impact area we encountered burned trees, which got shorter and shorter as we progressed. In the center of a completely scorched area we find two craters. You could have parked a couple deuce and a halves (two-and a half ton trucks) in there and stacked them on top of each other.
That night we set up just south of the craters. A guy on guard duty who should have known better, because this was his second tour, the first with the Marine Corps, lit a cigarette in the middle of the night. A sniper bullet went in one side of his chest, came out the other side, and hit a guy sleeping on the ground in the thigh. A Medevac comes in and takes them both to Betty.
About an hour after that we start getting ground fire and mortar fire from Buddha Mountain, a mountain about four miles from the coastline, one of those high hills that just pops up in the middle of nowhere. You could see the flashes coming from there and the mortars landing all around us.
We are so far south of Betty that we are out of their artillery range. So I call up the Jersey for fire support. The target coordinates I give them is too far for their five inch guns. Their 16 inch monsters will reach, but because we are on the target line and the high dispersion factor they say, We’d rather not.
There were incontrollable inaccuracies in every fired artillery round. The largest dispersion was always in the distance it traveled, especially at longer ranges, as opposed to its left/right flight. Anyone sitting close to the target directly between it and the howitzer (on the target line) might find the round landing uncomfortably close.
While I am on the radio with the Jersey we begin to fire into the perimeter and throw hand grenades. I take advantage of the situation and tell the Jersey, We’re under a ground attack and we need help. We aren’t, but I want them to fire that 16 incher. They agree to fire one round, and when they do the whole ocean lights up. We hear the round going over our heads like a freight train.
When that one New Jersey round hits near Buddha Mountain everything quiets down for the rest of the night.
The next morning we start walking back up to Betty and come across the same burial mound we had dug up on the way in, which by now is stinking because we had disturbed it the day before. And Captain K calls in the body count again, saying we just found another 20 bodies. That’s the kind of guy he was. He wanted credit for a body count. Nuts! There was a body-count push then. They thought that would win the war. Each platoon had a polaroid camera at that time, to take pictures of every body to verify the body count.
Back at Betty we hear the poor guy hit in the thigh died, because a bone fragment got into his bloodstream. The guy who lit the cigarette lived. He was real chubby and the bullet missed his heart and his lungs and went clear through the fat. They ran a cleaning rod with a sulfur pad through him and sent him back out a couple days later.
The New Jersey patrolled the waters off Phan Thiet shelling targets of opportunity March 20 – 28, 1969. On April 1 she departed for Japan, having fired 5,688 rounds of 16 inch shells during her tour along the coast line in Vietnam. The one fired on Buddha Mountain was perhaps her last.
The Blue Lines
Captain K’s real claim to fame, completely in his own mind, was: “I used to teach map reading in ranger school. I know how to read a map.” Every sergeant, every platoon leader and all the Vietnamese we worked with knew he couldn’t read a map. Hank remembers him climbing trees all the time to figure out where he was, although I never saw him do that. I do know he usually had us in the wrong place. Thank goodness he never had to call in artillery, or any kind of fire.
We are looking for some POWs somewhere along the coast line about 20 miles south of Phan Rang. The helicopters bring us in on top of a low plateau along with a South Vietnamese unit commanded by the same battalion commander who earlier rescued us and who had walked that area since the 50’s.
On this plateau it reminds me of Tarzan movies. We’re walking along toward higher ground on the side of a cliff and all of a sudden rocks start flying down on us. We are being bombarded by a bunch of baboons. Then that first night we set up two baboons trip a flare on the trail and the machine gunner just wastes them. Captain K calls it in as enemy contact and reports we killed two NVA.
We’ve been instructed to go to the third crooked blue line on our maps (signifying a creek or river). Supposedly air recon had seen smoke coming from that location. Captain K busts up the patrol, sending one platoon to the left, one to the right, and one down the center with me and the Vietnamese. We cross a dry stream bed, and of course it’s the first blue line on the map, but it’s early April in the heart of the dry season. I tell Captain K, “We crossed the first blue line.”
He says, “No, no. There’s no water in there. It can’t be a blue line.”
So we go on and cross another dry stream bed, which on our maps is the second blue line. Late that afternoon we come to a stream with water in it, the third blue line on our maps, and Captain K says, “Hm, we finally hit the first blue line.”
Captain K insists that we continue on, but it’s starting to get dark and he wants the platoons to come in to one location for the night. He tells one of the platoons to pop a flare and we would all converge on it. The platoon leader refuses, and so does the other platoon leader. “We’re not telling anybody where we are.” So Captain K has someone at his location pop a flare, and as soon as he does the Vietnamese take off saying, “This man crazy.” I take off with the Vietnamese, and half the platoon takes off with us. We go up to the top of a nearby hill and wait for the enemy mortars. Thank god the VC had taken off by then.
The next morning the camp we were looking for along with evidence they were holding prisoners. My radio operator and I go up to the top of a nearby ridge line, and from there we can see Phan Rang Air Force base in the distance, with planes taking off and landing, exactly were we were supposed to be. I go back and tell Captain K where we are, pointing out the ridge line on the map. He still insists we are further south at the first blue line.
It is Easter Sunday with no VC or NVA in the vicinity, so we decide to celebrate with a bath in the stream.
Another good one about Captain K. We’re up in the mountains near the Cambodian border. Three quarters of the way up the mountain we see an area where the vegetation is all flattened to the ground. I don’t know why Captain K thinks I am a jack-of-all-trades, but he tells me to come up and says, “What do you think did this?”
I see elephant turds everywhere. They’re a lot larger than a horse’s. I say, “With all the elephant shit it looks like elephants did this.”
He says, “How long ago were they here?”
“Let me take a look.” I grab a stick, kneel down, brake one of the turds apart, pull the stick up, look at it and say, “Based on what I’ve seen from big Clydesdales back in Tennessee, I’d say it was two days ago.”
He gets on the radio and calls it in as enemy activity! “VC elephant convoy came through the area two days ago.”
Everybody is laughing their heads off.
The Happy POW
We’re in the boonies hiking around and we take a break. Sgt. Thomas and I are sitting maybe 12 feet from this bush. Something does not look right. So we get up and notice this kid sitting inside the bush. He is only about 15 years old. He is a Viet Cong with a couple grenades and full VC web gear.
Somehow he got separated from his unit. We give him water and a cigarette, and he becomes very talkative to the point we cannot not shut the kid up. We hear later from the intel guys that they treated him real nice and the kid was just happy as heck he got caught.