Monthly Archives: May 2015

John Clay – Gun Crew – Part Two

I Don’t Remember Hardly Any Names

… because most of the time nobody wore a shirt with your name on it and we used nicknames so much. My nickname was Cassius, for Cassius Clay. A guy from Missouri everybody called Old Red because he was older and he had red hair. There was a really tall black guy we called Slim. I have more nicknames in my head than real names.

My gun sergeant was this big huge guy, must have been 300 pounds and 6’3 or 6’4 with blonde hair and a mustache. He was an old lifer E5 and champion beer drinker who had been busted more times than the average and then promoted back up again. (This character everyone called The Swede.)

Then Sgt. Rock came along as my gunnery sergeant, a shake and bake out of gunnery school. We called him Sgt. Rock from the comic books (character created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert for DC comics first appeared in 1959).

There was a guy on Gun 1, a big farmer type everybody called Baby Huey (a giant duckling cartoon character created by Martin Taras for Paramount Pictures uttered its first quack in 1949.) I remember we were very good friends. He was the one who gave me the nickname Cassius.

I Do Remember …

… using powder from the extra powder bags to heat shower water. This was against procedure because we were supposed to take the bags out to the dump and burn them in a pile. An exception was using them to heat water for the officers, which was one of our duties. But we weren’t allowed to heat our own water.

… how we put warm beer in the LRRPs because the water wasn’t any good.

These were freeze dried food packets used on Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol missions, referred to as LRRPs and pronounced “lurps.”

… when Johnny Grant came to the firebase. He was an old master of ceremonies kind of guy they called The Honorary Mayor of Hollywood. He came out with a couple of Playboy bunnies and they did a show.

… helping build the bar that was our “club” in the middle of the battery. I was always handy with wood. I had a fancy hooch. I was one of the first people to take the blowtorch and burn the wood and make it look like walnut. It was amazing what you could do with a bunch of empty ammo boxes

… starting to smoke and drink in the Army. The Red Cross gave us the cigarettes in care packages. I gave up the smoking about ten years later. Also gave up the drinking because it bothered my stomach.

… when Davis got killed (Jeffrey Lynn Davis killed April 16 , 1970). He was a nice guy. I think he was on Gun 2, the gun as you came out of FDC on your right hand side. He was in the ammo bunker when a mortar round landed in the doorway. There was another guy who got a lot of shrapnel in his face, a little stocky guy. We all went over trying to do something for them, and then the Medevac arrived and off they went.

… when I first got to Sherry we just had the old WWII split tail howitzers. To swing them around you had to take a couple guys and physically pick up the trails. Then the M102s with the wheel on the back came in that you could just wheeled around in a full circle.

… Commo Daddy on mine sweeps down there with a knife probing when they found a mine. (Commo Daddy was a common nickname for the communications section chief.)

… one time I was on guard duty and saw a woman and her kids digging outside the wire where we had a bulldozer. I called it in and the First Sergeant went out there with a couple people and found a booby trap.

… vaguely early in my tour a guy got killed on a Duster when we got mortared one night, by the nickname of Chicken Man.

… stealing stuff when we’d go to the rear area: the metal runway material and heavy rubber tarps for building hooches, stuff you couldn’t get. I remember we stole some because they were just sitting there rotting in the sun.

… when Junk Daddy traded for that big generator is when I sent away for my four-track tape player and listened to Crosby, Stills & Nash at night. (Junk Daddy was the common term of affection for the supply sergeant.)

… one night during a mortar attack someone accidentally set off a green flare. That meant Viet Cong were inside the perimeter and everyone was shitting in their pants.

… that I avoided playing poker and stuff like that. I think I got that from my father. He said, “Beware of playing poker and guys you don’t know.” When we got paid I had a checkbook and when the paymaster came I could cash a check. That’s how I got money. All of my money went into an account. I never got my month’s pay in my hand.

… Paul Dunne. He was one of the first guys I really got to know. When I was stuck in FDC I’d go out at night when things were quiet and we would go get coffee and just walk around. Two months after I met him he’s dead, killed on a mine sweep going into town. My dad – he served in Patton’s Army in WWII in the Battle of the Bulge and had a piece of his skull blown out by a sniper – told me I might loose friends, and he was right. To this day I still think about Paul.


John Clay – Gun Crew – Part One


I dropped out of college and volunteered for the draft for personal reasons. I just wanted to get the hell away for a while. I went down to the draft board in February of ’69, got in line and when I reached the desk said I wanted to volunteer for the draft. The guys behind me in line looked at me like I was nuts. So they drafted me on Fools Day April 1. Three months later they came out with the lottery and gave me a very high number, which meant I never would have had to go to Vietnam. Still I am so glad I went, and so glad I did my time.

In basic training at Ft. Ord, California they offered me a spot in Officer Candidate School. To do that I had to re-up for an extra year, so I said, No thank you. I went to Ft. Sill for artillery, took a bunch of tests and they offered me the E5 school. I said, No thank you to that too.

I was trained at Ft. Sill as a cannon cocker, but when I got to Sherry they were looking for people to help out in Fire Direction Control because they did not have enough trained people. The First Sergeant asked if anybody had been to college. I remembered never volunteer for anything, but I went ahead and mistakenly raised my hand anyway. At first I had a good time there. I handled the radios for a while, communicating with the guys in the field and back at Phan Thiet, and then they had me plotting fire missions. My training was all OJT.

John in Fire Direction Control at the plotting tables
John in Fire Direction Control at the plotting tables 

Note the two tables. During a live fire mission there was always a guy on a second chart figuring up the same data as a check. Before the firing commands could go to the howitzers every setting had to be called out from the primary chart and answered with a “CHECK” from the guy on the second chart.

Pretty soon I was bored to death in FDC because that is not what I was trained for. I kept asking, “When can I go out to the guns?” We worked 12 on and 12 off, and the only time I got to meet the guys on the guns was at night. I’d walk around and talk to them. I actually volunteered for a mine sweep into Phan Thiet, just to get the hell off the battery.

Finally after four months someone came into FDC who was trained and I went out to Gun 5. I think the name of Gun 5 was BOOM BOOM. One of the guys on the crew had been wounded five months prior when Gun 3 took a direct mortar hit. His chest was just a mass of scars.

I started out as an ammo humper, then worked the radios, and ended up being the gunner after a couple months. (The gunner and assistant gunner operated the howitzer during a fire mission.) You’re running around checking the fuses and getting the right settings on the gun. And you had to be quick. I think that’s why I was the gunner most of the time because I was quick at setting the gun up. I’ve always been able to learn stuff pretty fast. Probably why I started off in FDC.

Gun 5 was the battery base piece (the gun on which the battery was registered and therefore the most accurate of all the guns). Before I got to Sherry Gun 3 in the middle of the battery was base piece, but after it got hit they reconfigured the battery into a circle so every gun had a clear view for perimeter fire. That’s when they made Gun 5 base piece, and the spot where Gun 3 was stayed empty and became sort of holy ground.

On base piece we shot tons and tons of fire missions, because if you ever just needed one gun it would be us. On the gun you were just always there. A typical day was clean the gun, fill sandbags, cut powder charges, take the extra powder bags out to the trash dump, and burn them.

Every 105 mm round came with seven bags of powder numbered 1 through 7 and strung together with a cotton cord – a kind of artilleryman’s rosary. Setting a specific charge involved cutting loose the desired number of bags and loading them into the canister. The extra bags piled up and had to be disposed of, usually by burning them at the trash dump outside the wire.

Then you had guard duty at night. We did not have shifts like in FDC. We were always on. I can’t tell you how many times you were asleep and heard that thump from a mortar tube and you were up and out of your hooch as quick as you could. If you were already on guard duty you got to the gun and pulled the lanyard. There was a high explosive round with a short time fuse you always kept in the gun. It would explode out above the wire in case anyone was out there. You only had a few seconds before the mortar landed to get back under cover. You had time between the thump and when the mortar landed, but you had to be quick. That was typical stuff you did on a regular basis.

I’ve got tinnitus, ringing in my ears, from my time on the guns. The earplugs they gave you were those crappy little rubber things compared to the ones they have now days. And it was kind of hard to wear them because the radio operator sat in that little sandbag bunker and yelled the commands to the gun that came from FDC. If you had your earplugs in you could not hear them that well. I was constantly pulling them out and putting them in. Half the time I’d just hold my hands over my ears, which the assistance gunner could not do because he was pulling the lanyard. There’s a big difference between a charge one and a charge seven.

Imagine an ice pick in each ear and a baseball bat to the chest, that’s what standing next to a charge seven without ear protection felt like. Now imagine that 30 times in quick succession, ten times a week for year, and you begin to approach the ordinary life of a howitzer gun crew.

I never got to the rear very much. We’d go on convoys to Phan Thiet and then come right back again. Some guys got headquarters jobs up in Phan Rang but I never wanted to. For some reason I just liked being where I was.

Jim Scavio – Radar Section Chief – Part Four

Pictures That Tell A Story

vietnam570Montagnards were largely Christianized tribal people from Vietnam’s central highlands. They were true friends of American soldiers during the Vietnam War, and they paid a terrible price. More than 50 percent of adult Montagnard males were killed alongside American soldiers during the Vietnam War. This is a picture of Montagnard village between An Khe and Pleiku. Notice that there are only young people and women.


Father and KidsYou couldn’t help but wonder what the future holds for the kids who watched their father go off to join his unit.

Agent OrangeThe whole area on either side of highway through An Khe pass was once double canopy jungle. When I first saw the landscape as an FNG ((funny new guy) I asked an old timer if they had bombed the area with B52s. He laughed and told me, “That’s Agent Orange”.


vietnam578There were constant reminders that there were mines everywhere. If it was strong enough to blow the hood off, what happened to those who were riding inside? Notice all the tracks going around the hood, probably indicating another booby trap underneath it.


Mortar Crew APCvietnam583The Armored Cavalry had a bad day today. This mortar crew APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) hit a large mine made from an artillery shell while on patrol. None of the crew inside made it.


His and Her LZ Sherry had all the amenities. Here is our hot and cold running water system. Unfortunately we had to wait until the rainy season came before those barrels had water in them. Otherwise it was 110 degrees in the shade.

To see all of Jim’s pictures and commentary go to:

Jim Scavio – Radar Section Chief – Part Three

Cover 2 SketchLeaving Vietnam Was Harder Than Going

When you get short you think this is not the time to die. There was a guy on the quad-50 machine guns right behind my bunker who died the week he was supposed to go home. Those guys were always the first to shoot when we got hit, the first to get the action going. During mortar attacks this quad-50 was my alarm clock most of the time; when it went off it shook the ground. During a mortar attack he got hit with shrapnel that went underneath his helmet, hit him in the temple and killed him dead.

A few days before I was supposed to leave LZ Sherry for home, in early May of 1970 when LZ Betty got overrun, I was outside again – it was night but don’t know if I was in the can or not – and they started walking the mortars in on us. The explosions were coming closer and as I ran away from them I crashed into one of the bunker walls I didn’t see in the dark and broke my nose and busted my front teeth out. Still I did what I was supposed to do: I checked on my operators and then went to my fighting position and made sure we had guys out there. This one guy in his fighting position wouldn’t put his head up, so I had to go in there and rouse him up to start looking. I then went to my roof top observation post to look for mortar splashes, then came back down again and was running around through all the smoke and craziness.

I ended up getting sulfur burns on my face and hands too that night, which really hurt if you’ve ever had a sulfur burn. I don’t know how it happened, but it must have come from someone popping a smoke round somewhere and me not knowing I was right next to it. That was so much worse than my nose and teeth, because it really hurt. The next day – I’m really short by now – I talked to the medic and said my face and hands are burning. I’ve got this hole in my lip and my teeth are broken, but what I really want is something for this burn. He said, “I can’t do anything for you. They’ll take care of your teeth when you go home.” He told me not to get treated in country because I’d go to a hospital and be in the Army for another 30 days. I could not deal with that. I can tough this out. In three days the burns on my hands and face turned black.

I’d been on LZ Sherry for six months and I had not been paid for the last four. It was like they lost me. I never heard from my battalion anyway; those guys never left headquarters. (Jim’s chain of command stretched 300 miles north to An Khe where the 8th/26th Artillery – Target Acquisition – had its headquarters at Camp Radcliff.) I’d rarely see anyone from battalion in the field. The only time we’d see any brass on the firebase it seemed to me is when we took casualties. They’d come down and they’d be all over you for a few hours, quizzing you about this and that.

When I had about a week to go I learned battalion had sent a message down for me to go home 30 days before that, but by the time it had gone through six or seven hands it was so garbled nobody knew what it was. I would not have gone back anyway, because if I had to spend any time in the rear I would have been busted back to private. My replacement was there and he said I could go anytime I wanted, but I said I would stay till the last minute, and then hopefully I’d stay out of trouble when I went back there, because the rear areas at that time were beyond beyond. They were crazy places and I knew I would not fit in.

A part of my attitude about the rear came from a trip I made back to Camp Radcliff from Sherry with one of my guys who was going up before a promotion board. It’s a long way, a number of chopper rides to get back up there. We finally get there and we look awful, we’re dirty, we’re carrying our weapons and all our stuff with us down a road through the camp when this jeep goes by us maybe 50 feet when all of sudden we hear the screech of brakes. It goes in reverse back to us carrying a new-dude major. You can tell he’s a new-dude because his fatigues are brand new. We salute him and then he chews us out for not walking in step. This kid and I looked at each other and said, “Jesus Christ, what is the matter with these people?” We did everything we could not to draw on him. That’s why I was happy as a clam in the field. If they made me go back there for any length of time I would be in trouble. I had enough trouble as it was keeping my mouth shut.

I have all my stuff packed up and I’m ready to leave. They mounted the convoy to LZ Betty. We were not aware of everything that had gone on at LZ Betty, at least I wasn’t.

In the early morning hours of May 3, 1970 an NVA battalion of five companies in consort with five companies of VC, a force of 350, overran LZ Betty. They killed seven U.S. soldiers and wounded thirty-five, leaving behind fourteen bodies of their own they could not carry away.

All I remember is that the sun was beating down on me and that it was really hot on that convoy. My face was burning so bad that I jumped off and went over into a rice paddy and put mud on my face to cool it. When we finally got to Betty it was going to be awhile before my chopper would leave to take me to Phan Rang. I went over to the MASH unit to see if they had some sort of salve they could give me. The medic there looked me over and said, “We really don’t have anything that’s going to help you. We could admit you, but if we do you’re going to be here for awhile.”

I said, “I’m going home, man.” So I went to Phan Rang, was able to visit with my warrant officer friend who extended so many times, and found another chopper ride up to Camp Radcliff. I walked into the battalion headquarters, went into the top sergeant’s office to check in. He looked up and asked me what I was doing there. I said, “I’m going home.”

He said, “You went home a month ago.”

At which I erupted. I was so mad I went into a tirade, for them not to know where their people were. He was a good ol’ sergeant major and he let me vent on him, to the extent that I almost got out of line. He tried to explain, but I wasn’t having any of it. He finally told me to cool my jets before I ended up in jail. I said, “Just get me out of here as fast as you can.”

You know how you had to have a reenlistment talk. I think mine was the fastest there ever was. I said it was just not for me, and he said, “I’m going to get you out of here as fast as I can.” I really appreciated that.

The sergeant major, who was a good guy, wanted me to stay another day for an awards ceremony. He said I got a Bronze Star, which I guessed was from my time at Dak To. He also looked at my burnt face, which was all black and pink. I looked pretty awful. He asked me what happened and when I told him he wrote it all down and said at the awards ceremony I’d be getting a Purple Heart too. I said, “I don’t want to be here, I want to go home. I have to get out of this place. Even though it’s a bigger base than Sherry I do not want to be here.” So he gave me the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart medals, and said the paperwork would catch up with me later.

He then sent me to supply to turn in my stuff. Of course coming out of LZ Sherry all your stuff was filthy, and most of it wet. I talked to this supply sergeant and he tells me he isn’t going to accept my stuff. I have to go someplace and clean it. Once again I erupted, got into a big tet-a-tet with him. He called the sergeant major and said we were coming to blows. I don’t know what the sergeant major told him, probably to leave me alone, but he changed his mind and said he’d take my stuff and signed me out.

So I got a chopper down to Cam Rahn Bay, where I sat there for three days in a barracks where everyone waited for a flight home. Every three or four hours there was an assembly, and if they called your name you were getting on a plane. I was so afraid … If you did not answer that call you got put to the end of the line again. I thought this sergeant major was going to get me on an early plane, but that was just insane thinking. I stayed up literally 24 hours a day for three days going to these assemblies because I was afraid to go to sleep and miss my call. Finally I fell asleep due to exhaustion. When I woke up I saw there was an assembly going on. I ran down the barracks and heard my name called. Oh my god I almost missed it! I slept the whole trip home and don’t remember anything about it.

The Shortest Vietnam Tour Ever

I got to California where they were going to check me out. They asked me if I was alright and I said yes because I didn’t want anything to hold me up. They had my pay figured out by then. I stayed in uniform and went back to Omaha where I checked into the VA to have my teeth fixed. The experience at the VA hospital was so bad that I swore I’d never go back, and I did not for 38 years. But then recently I thought I should get into the system because of exposure to Agent Orange and what if I got cancer some day from it. I applied to the VA and was shocked when I got a letter back denying me service. Vietnam vets were supposed to be golden. That’s when I found out that my discharge papers had the wrong dates. My discharge said I arrived in Vietnam one day, and left the day before. It said, “VN SERVICE: 20 May 1969 – 19 May 19, 1969.” I had never paid any attention to it. Here’s the Army doing it to me again. I decided I’m just not going to think about it any more.

Years later I ran into a veterans advocate who said this wasn’t right and to come to his office and he would help me. Eventually I got it corrected by showing the VA pictures of me in Vietnam. The end of the story is the VA hospital called me up and said, “Come in.”

My discharge papers also did not have my Bronze Star Medal or my Purple Heart. We put in another appeal for the medals, which resulted in the Bronze Star being recognized but not the Purple Heart. The end of the Purple Heart story is I could not prove my injuries were the result of hostile enemy action, so I gave up. If that’s the worse thing that ever happens to me, what the hell.