Monthly Archives: July 2015

First To Fire – Last To Leave

First To Fire – Last To Leave

Motto of the Air Defense Artillery in Vietnam

 An Unwelcome New Neighbor

When B Battery took up permanent residence at LZ Sherry in May of 1968 it became a stationary dot in a vast expanse of rice paddies and surrounding jungle, and an irresistible target for the enemy. The battery now lived in a constant state of worry. Foremost was protecting its own perimeter from ground attacks, which fell largely to the battery itself. Its original defenses were three guard towers with machine guns, a handful of small fighting bunkers scattered around the perimeter, and multiple rows of barbed wire festooned with trip flares, Claymore mines, barrels of phu gas, and tin cans containing rocks hung from the barbed wire so as to rattle at the slightest quiver. Soon these light defenses were reinforced by two tanks, temporarily at Sherry for maintenance in exchange for providing added perimeter security at night, and three heavy automatic weapons. The tanks took up their positions on the southern perimeter, while the heavy automatic weapons – a Quad-50 machine gun and two 40 mm cannon units – guarded the rest of the perimeter.

Despite these measures on January 12, 1969 a force of fourteen Viet Cong sappers made it to the final strand of wire and were seconds away from opening an avenue into the firebase for more sappers waiting behind them. They had approached the firebase directly in front of the tank closest to the heart of the compound. The VC perhaps figured in a calculated gamble, Take out the tank and the rest will be easy. An alert tank commander saw the lead sapper raise a rocket propelled grenade launcher to his shoulder, and before the sapper could pull the trigger the tanker fired a canister round directly into him, atomizing his lower body and killing everyone behind him.

Following the January 12 ground attack the two tanks took up permanent residence at Sherry, often leaving during the day in support of ground operations, but always returning at night. There were no more ground attacks, but the VC, and perhaps elements of the North Vietnamese Army concentrated just north of Sherry, took up a relentless campaign of deadly mortar attacks. LZ Sherry guarded the northern access routes into Phan Thiet, an important fuel and supply port. The VC did not like it there and they did not like the newly installed radar installations that gave the firebase a long look into the surrounding country. They wanted it gone.

By August, toward the end of the rainy season, the attacks had taken a devastating toll. Captain Hank Parker, executive officer and then battery commander, recalls, “Out of a full strength battery of six guns and 120 guys, we were down to three guns and 67 guys, and many of them were walking wounded. A full gun crew was eight guys, and we were struggling to find four for a gun.”

Mortar Craters at Sherry Picture courtesy Dave Fitchpatrick
Mortar craters filled with monsoon rain
Picture courtesy Dave Fitchpatrick

Out of Retirement

After more than six months of guarding Sherry the tanks pulled out and another Quad-50 machine gun took their place. Heavy weapons defense for the rest of B Battery’s time in Vietnam now fell to the Quad-50s and the 40 mm cannons, two antiquated but fearsome weapons belonging to the 4/60th Air Defense Artillery. Both were obsolete anti-aircraft weapons from WWII and Korea that had been given to National Guard units when jets had rendered them useless for air defense. They came out of retirement for Vietnam in the belief that the North Vietnamese would have an air assault capability using slow moving helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. When that did not occur, these anti-aircraft relics took on anti-personnel missions, guarding fire bases and supporting infantry operations. The equipment was old and in constant need of maintenance. However both were mechanically simple and at the receiving end capable of frightful carnage.


The Duster was a second generation Korean War weapon with twin cannons mounted on a tank track and firing a 40 mm round that detonated on impact. Imagine a weapon that fires 240 grenades per minute and accurate at two miles. Now imagine its twin barrels laying down fire 50 yards off a perimeter and raising a blanket of dirt into the air. Now you’ve got a pretty good idea of a Duster.

The Army quit making them in 1959. By Vietnam there were only enough Dusters left to make up three battalions, each with 64 Dusters. The 4/60th was the third and final Duster battalion to go to Vietnam in March 1967.

Duster at LZ Sherry
Duster at LZ Sherry

Whispering Death

The Quad-50 was four 50 caliber machine guns mounted on the back of a five-ton truck. It fired a cartridge as long as your hand and could put out 2000 rounds per minute. When a 50 caliber round hit an object the shrapnel and flying debris could kill a man ten yards away. The Quad-50 first came into use during WWII, most notably in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge when American troops crossed into Germany. In Korea it picked up the nickname Whispering Death. Like the Duster, the Quad-50 became obsolete as an anti-aircraft weapon with the advent of jets. Only four Quad-50 companies made it to Vietnam, three of them attached to the three Duster battalions.

The 4/60th Duster battalion deployed across a 25,000 square mile area of operations encompassing all of II Corp and parts of I and III Corp, an extraordinary mission with just 16 Dusters, 12 Quad 50s, and less than a thousand men. Yet little two-acre Sherry merited two Dusters (First Platoon Alpha Battery) and two Quads (E Company, 41st Artillery).

In the history of B Battery at LZ Sherry the Dusters and Quads became the core of its perimeter security. Their presence bolstered the confidence of its troops and helped to establish Sherry’s reputation within the battalion. Word went around that LZ Sherry got mortared a lot but there was no way it could be overrun. The swagger arose largely from the four killing machines on its perimeter.

First To Fire – Last to Leave

The Quad-50s and Dusters were a quick reaction force, the first to return sustained automatic weapons fire when the battery came under attack. When the alert of INCOMING sounded their crews were out on their weapons and laying fire into their sectors, always under the assumption a ground attack was underway. Every Duster round and every fifth Quad-50 round was a tracer, making for quite a nighttime fireworks display.

Whispering Death at night
Whispering Death at night

Like the howitzer crews, during attacks the Duster and Quad-50 crews were in the open exposed to the rain of falling mortars. They took pride that they were the last to leave the field of battle. As a result they and the gun crews suffered most of the casualties at LZ Sherry.

The 4/60th battalion operations report covering the period when the Dusters and Quad-50s went to Sherry contains sobering casualty statics. During the months of May, June and July of 1969 the battalion had a total strength of 995 men. During that three month period nine were killed in action or died of battle wounds. Another 72 were wounded. None of the nine fatalities during that period were at Sherry. However it is likely that many of the 72 wounded earned their Purple Hearts at LZ Sherry given the overall level of casualties at the firebase during that period.

Over the course of their time in Vietnam the three Duster battalions and their attached units earned over a thousand Purple Hearts and suffered 211 deaths (Paul Kopsick, historian for the National Duster, Quad and Searchlight Association). Just one died at LZ Sherry. Quad-50 crewman Charles Cordle was killed on February 17, 1970 in a typical mortar/rocket attack. He was a 27 year old Specialist 4, an age and rank that suggest he was a victim of the “oldest first” draft before the lottery. He had been in Vietnam for 13 months, further suggesting he had extended his tour for an early out, common for two year draftees.

Staff Sergeant Jim Scavio, Radar Section Chief, remembers Charles.

Charles Cordle was on the Quad-50 behind my bunker.  I believe his nickname was Chicken Man  (don’t know why).  It is my recollection that he was suppose to go home in just a few days or weeks when he died.   Those guys on the quad were my best alarm that we would be hit, always shooting before the mortars hit the ground.  If I was on my cot in the bunker, the noise and vibrations from the firing would make you think they were in there with you.

A Sergeant’s War

The Quads and Duster crews were an independent lot, due in part to their wide dispersion. Battalion headquarters of the 4/60th was 300 miles north at An Khe, and their fighting units were dispersed in platoons across half the land mass of Vietnam.

As a result, the war fought by the Quad-50 and Duster gunners in Vietnam was overwhelmingly a sergeant’s war, as detached platoons and firing sections found themselves under the operations control of other types of units. (Charles E. Kirkpatrick, “Arsenal,” Vietnam Magazine, Spring 1989)

At LZ Sherry the Duster and Quad-50 crews exempted themselves from the daily routines of the battery. They did not appear at morning formations, they flaunted haircut and dress standards, and of course were never caught near the standard work details that kept a firebase functioning and in good repair. The first sergeant’s favorite word for them was worthless, but no one at Sherry, including the first sergeant, was not glad to have them there.

Captain Parker sums up the prevailing feeling about the Dusters and Quad-50s.

I honestly believe that when LZ Sherry became a permanent fire support base the higher ups knew we would be an irresistible target, “like a cherry on top of an ice cream sundae,” and they were right. We fended off probes, snipers, landmines, boobie traps and outright ground assaults. We were more than a pest because we were killing NVA regulars and blocking their infiltration route. Vital to our mission was the perimeter support provided by our Duster and Quad brothers. The Quads also provided convoy support and I always felt more secure when I had “Whispering Death” behind my lead jeep. I never forgot that to get to my guns the enemy had to get by the Dusters and Quads first. These guys earned their pay and B Battery boys knew this and respected them.

Historical Footnote

The Air Defense Artillery in Vietnam did not have a single air engagement, not one. Early in Vietnam a HAWK missile unit was fired upon by a helicopter, which the crew thought belong to the North Vietnamese Army. They readied their missiles and waited eagerly for the chopper to return, which it never did. Turns out it was a U.S. helicopter that had simply mistaken them for the enemy. And that’s all there was to the anticipated air war in Vietnam. 

*Special thanks to Mitch Reynolds for the box of material relating to the history of Air Defense Artillery in Vietnam.

Bill Cooper – B Battery XO (Executive Officer) – Part Five


The Real Story

At the time I told people I picked up a white star cluster flare by accident. But it wasn’t a mistake. I did it on purpose. In fact I planned the whole thing, and no one knew it was coming but me.

In late 1970 troop levels were drawing down in Vietnam, and we were getting soldiers from deactivated units who did not have enough time in country to rotate back to the states. These were guys who were not open to change. First they were pissed off they were not going home, and second they already thought they knew it all. The gun chiefs from other units were as much a problem as the crew members. It seemed to me we were getting loose and sloppy. I wanted to see exactly what kind of shape we were in and how we would respond to a perceived ground attack. The white star cluster was my little test.

I planned all along to take it on myself as a dumb second lieutenant who screwed up. Otherwise I’d be opening myself to disciplinary action, maybe even a court martial.

I went out to the tower by the Duster, the same one at which my friend got his belly scratch, and told the guard to had me a popper. He wanted to give me an ordinary illumination flare, but I said no, give me the white star cluster. I popped it and right away everything broke loose. I was impressed with the reaction time of the guard towers, the quad-50 machine guns, the Dusters and even the howitzers. Then a red star cluster came right over the Duster, meaning the howitzer was about to shoot a beehive round directly into the wire in our direction (a shell with 8000 metal fleshettes fired shotgun style). When I saw the red star cluster I thought, Aw shit. I dove down next to the Duster busting my shoulder up against the track, and WHOOOSE all those fleshettes came flying overhead. I called a CHECK FIRE into FDC and everything calmed down.

I went over to the gun that fired the beehive. The gun chief told me the SOP of the unit he came from was to lower the tube and fire a beehive if a white cluster went up – automatically – and he he had no idea he was supposed to signal with a red star cluster first. Fortunately one of the older guys in his unit did, or I would have been standing on the berm like an idiot and made into hamburger.

Then battalion called thinking Sherry was getting a ground attack. I told battalion I screwed up because a guy handed me the wrong popper. I got chewed out a little, mostly because of all the ammo we shot up.

The true story is I wanted to pop a white star cluster just to see how the battery would react. I didn’t discuss it with anybody, not the battery commander or the first sergeant. In retrospect it probably wasn’t a real smart thing to do.

The next morning in the mess hall several guys from the guns and some of the old timers walked by and gave me a thumbs-up. The Chief of Smoke (senior sergeant in charge of all the howitzers) came up and said, “What happened, lieutenant?”

I said, “I screwed up, Smoke. Just grabbed the wrong popper.”

He smiled and said, “Yeah, right.”

Leaving Vietnam

It was strange when someone would leave to go home. They were just gone one day. No shouting, no yelling, just a quiet ride out. When I left Sherry I felt a little guilty, that these guys were still there and I was leaving.

When I was in Officer Candidate School, shortly after I got word I was going to Vietnam, I was laying in my bed and I asked God if I would be coming back. I heard, or felt – I was not quite sure which – an answer. It was a clear NO. I had never before heard so clear a voice

With just a few days left at Sherry I had a dream about leaving. The Huey supply helicopter that was to take me out was down for scheduled maintenance. However FDC informed me the battalion XO was in the area and I could catch ride out with him. As we are lifting off from the helipad in my dream another Huey helicopter appears and crashes into us. As we are going down I say over and over, “I knew it. I knew it.”

When the great day came for me to leave, true to my dream I got word that my helicopter was down for maintenance. But not to worry because the battalion XO was in the air and would give me a ride. I told my assistant XO about my dream and instructed him to let everyone know I knew my helicopter would go down in a crash.

I boarded the battalion XO’s Huey, put a headset on and held tight to the thumb key that would let me talk to the pilot. As we lifted off you better believe I scanned the sky in all directions for the killer helicopter, which never materialized.

At the officers club in Cam Rahn, waiting for a flight home, I grabbed an empty seat and struck up a conversation with a first lieutenant sitting next to me. They had lost my suitcase so I did not have a dress uniform to go home in. I mentioned to him that I was headed to the PX to buy a khaki uniform for the trip, which was the best I could manage. That’s when he said to me he had gotten a letter from his parents asking him not to wear his uniform home. He said to me, “Can you believe it? My own parents!” He was was almost in tears telling me this.

I said, “Maybe it’s because they don’t want you to be insulted or spit on. Maybe they don’t want you to go through that.”

He said, “Hell no, they just don’t want to see me in my uniform. But you know what? I’m wearing my uniform.”

I flew home out of Cam Rahn on a civilian aircraft. As we lifted off a cheer went up. One person yelled, “Fuck you, Vietnam,” which brought another cheer.

At Ft. Lewis, Washington I processed out and went immediately to the small post exchange for civilian cloths. There was not a big selection because everybody wanted new civvies and you had to take what they had. You saw big guys in pants over their ankles and shirts they couldn’t button. I found a close fitting shirt and trousers, and headed into the restroom to change. There the floor was covered with muddy jungle fatigues, kicked off and just laying there. I remember as a kid seeing snake skins laying in the woods where they had been shed. It seemed to me these guys had shed their Vietnam skins.

My first assignment out of Vietnam was Ft. Riley, Kansas – my third tour there. The family and I were attending church one Sunday in Junction City and as we were walking out someone took my arm. I turned to see Colonel Meis. He said, “You made it alright!” He thanked me for helping his son in Vietnam, who was now, he said proudly, a student at Kansas State University.

Bill would serve a full twenty years in the Army and achieve the rank of captain, not an easy task in the years after Vietnam when the military was shrinking. Through difficulties and setbacks, few of which are recounted in these stories, he never stopped loving the Army with the same fervor of the 17 year old kid who had found a home there.

A proud moment came in 2009 at Ft. Benning, Georgia when Captain Cooper (Retired) and Honey attended the graduation of their grandson Brandon from basic training.

2009 Ft. Benning Graduation  

Sergeant Brandon Bridge served in the Army for five years, four and a half of them across five tours of duty in Afghanistan as an airborne ranger.

Bill Cooper – B Battery XO (Executive Officer) – Part Four


LZ Sherry

 I went to Sherry as the battery XO (executive officer, second in command after the battery commander). There was a first lieutenant there already running Fire Direction Control who should have moved up to the XO job, but he said he wanted to stay where he was. I knew him from my visits to the base and knew we would work well together. At a firebase the battery commander was the guy over everything, while the XO had the running of the firing battery – the howitzers, the perimeter machine guns and Dusters (twin 40 mm cannons) and even the radar units. Bravo battery was one of the best defended bases in the battalion.

I pulled duty from six in the morning until midnight. I would visit each howitzer, guard tower and outpost. In this way I got to know the men and they got to know me.

Lt. Cooper (second from left with shoulder tattoo) hanging with the enlisted guys
Lt. Cooper (second from left with shoulder tattoo) hanging with the enlisted guys

Where Were You Shot?

The battery commander was off somewhere leaving me as acting BC. We got a “red flag” message concerning an inquiry from a congressman about the warrant officer (officer in a technical specialty) who was running our radar section. The red flag designation meant it was urgent, could be answered over the radio in the clear, and had to be answered within 24 hours. Right away I got on the radio to the duty officer at battalion headquarters. It seemed our warrant officer had told his wife he had been wounded. She contacted her congressman and wanted to know why the Army did not notify her that her husband was wounded and she had to find out in a letter from him.

I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He said, “You mean one of your guys got wounded and you don’t know about it?”

“Nobody got wounded!”

“Well I need an answer on my colonel’s desk in the morning.”

I walked over to the warrant officer’s hooch and the guy’s laying on his bunk reading a book. He was young, in his early twenties. I sat down on the cot next to him and said, “We have a big problem, chief.”

He said, “What’s that?”

“I just got notification from battalion about some big shot congressman looking into what you told your wife about being shot. And she is really pissed the Army never told her.”

He turned pale and said, “Aw shit.” Then he told me everything, that he told his wife the firebase was hit and he was wounded in the leg.

“Don’t you know the first thing your wife will want to see is your wound?” I pulled out my .45 pistol, chambered a round and said, “Where did you say you were shot?”

He went even paler. I told him he had a choice. If he wanted to go home without a wound he would write his wife admitting he had lied to her. He was to bring the letter with an envelope to me. I would send it to headquarters for copying and mailing on to his wife. A copy would go to the congressman and one into his file.

This was not my first exposure to guys inventing a war record. Right after I agreed to become the motor officer back in Phan Rang, the deal that would get me to B Battery, I was taking a little siesta after lunch. A new warrant officer had a room right next to mine. The walls were flimsy half inch plywood, so you could hear everything next door. I hear this guy come stomping in. He gets on his tape recorder and starts making a tape for his wife back home. He’s telling her, We got hit last night and our compound was overrun. I ran out and got into a bunker to return fire. I’m sure I hit a few, I don’t know how many, but don’t worry, I’m Okay. Finally I’ve heard enough. I get out of my bunk, stomp around and slam the door. I want him to know I heard everything. That evening I was in the officers club having a drink. I saw him come in, and when our eyes met he made an about face and left.

There were two types of soldiers in Vietnam. The ones who inflated their combat experiences for folks back home, or simply invented them. And the ones who asked that family not be told of their injuries; these were the real heroes.

Location, Location, Location

In the field in Vietnam a key survival skill was letting folks know where you were at all times, especially nearby artillery batteries, and especially at night.

I got an early lesson in how dangerous mix-ups can be. A heavy artillery battery to our north at LZ Sandy had closed, and the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) had given us a free fire zone for that area, which meant we could fire at will. Every night we plotted the location of friendlies on our maps and had no reports of anyone there. That night our radar picked up activity right at that location. Figuring it was Viet Cong we called up two howitzers and unloaded five rounds apiece on top of it, at which all movement stopped.

The next morning we got a visit from a TOC investigating officer with clipboard in hand. It seems a ROK unit (Republic of Korea) had sent a few people to the old firebase to see what they could scrounge. They were most probably looking for PSP, metal runway material used to build hoochs. They had failed to tell the folks at the TOC what they were doing and as a result walked right into our free fire zone. Fortunately I don’t think we killed anyone. I liked the ROKs; they were tough soldiers generally feared by both the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. But sometimes they were a little too independent for their own good.


A second important survival skill was knowing when to duck.

When I was the night duty officer I would sometimes fire “killer junior” rounds out over the wire. These were high explosive rounds with a time fuse set at .5 seconds that would explode in the air just outside the wire. I called FDC to tell everyone it was coming and to take cover. I no sooner fired the round in the direction of the Duster than I hear CHECK FIRE, CHECK FIRE and MEDIC, MEDIC. I rushed over and saw Doc with a guy holding his gut and there’s blood all over the place. I thought, Shit man, I done hit one of our own.

Doc walked the guy to the medic station and pretty soon had the bleeding stopped and him cleaned up. The wound turned out to be just a surface scratch that bled a lot. And it was a wound he had coming. He was an E-5 sergeant sitting at the outpost next to the Duster drinking a beer with his gut hanging out of his flak jacket when word came down from FDC about the killer junior round. The guard on duty at the Duster told him to get down and he came back with something like, Go screw yourself. Shortly after that the round went off.

The next morning I was sitting in the mess hall with the first sergeant and this guy comes in with his stomach all bandaged up like a mummy. He said, “Who initiates the paperwork for my Purple Heart? Do I do that, or do you guys?”

I dropped my fork, turned to the first sergeant and said, “Get this guy out of here before I get ahold of him.”