Monthly Archives: September 2015

George Buck – B Battery XO – Part Six

Landing Zone Sherry

It is August 5, 1968 and I have been in Vietnam over seven months. Colonel Crosby tells me I am taking over as XO (executive officer and second in command) of B Battery at a new firebase called LZ Sherry. LZ Sherry is relatively new (about three months) so there is still a fair amount of work to be done to get things totally organized. It is my fourth assignment and my second field position, so I have a good feel for what I want to see and how I want things to run.

My first order of business is to meet everyone. There is the battery commander, Captain Ridgeway, along with his first sergeant and chief of smoke ( highest ranking sergeant and sergeant in charge of the gun crews). This is the first time I am at the same location as my immediate boss, except for the brief time I was XO of my Duster company. Captain Ridgeway likes having people on board who function with little to no supervision. Not that he isn’t involved or doesn’t care, but there is too much going on at a new firebase for one person to micromanage, so he  delegates freely and that allows us to get a lot done in a short amount of time.

This fits my style perfectly, but unfortunately it also fits the style of the battery First Sergeant and we immediately butt heads. It’s clear he wants to run everything his way and that is not going to happen. The first of my issues is security. In the initial months of LZ Sherry the enemy activity was not as bad as what it would be in the coming months. All of my previous experiences have been at transient basecamps that did not offer much security. At a permanent basecamp like LZ Sherry you want to build as much protection as you can and that starts at the perimeter wire. I want to double the amount of wire we have out there but the first sergeant stops the work saying we had enough. Without going into a lot of detail, I make it clear that our security is going to be beefed up, because we are not going to get overrun and I am not losing any more men. Acosta and Donovan are always fresh on my mind.

That creates the second confrontation a few days later. I am pulling the late night guard shift, something I was used to doing every night in the Duster platoon, and even as a forward observer out with the infantry I never slept more than a few hours a night. I liked to sit in one of the vehicles outside my bunker, and about midway through the guard tour I see movement and then a figure moving towards my bunker. I assume it is the fire direction officer who bunks with me. No, it is the First Sergeant tiptoeing down the steps into my bunker. He then comes back out and stands there looking around.

I know this game, catch me sleeping on guard and you got something to hold over my head. I calmly say from the shadows, “Don’t move.” We have a short discussion, and the next morning I take him aside and tell him he’s lost my trust and I am not going to rely on him. Instead I tell the Chief of Smoke, Sergeant Cerda, if there is any kind of conflict with the First Sergeant he should see me first and I’ll take care of it.

Lucky To Be XO of B Battery

Fortunately at that point our mission changes to include air mobile hip shoots. We now take a couple or three guns, some fire direction folks, and Sergeant Cerda and we go on remote missions away from Sherry. This works well for a lot of reasons.

The main reason is we have six strong crews. I could draw names out of a hat and have two good sections anyway you shuffled them.  The second reason is Sergeant Cerda. I love this guy. He is one of the few people in Vietnam whose name and face I have always recalled.

Chief of Smoke Cerda Pictures courtesy Rik Groves

Chief of Smoke Cerda
Pictures courtesy Rik Groves

And third is the crew chiefs who all have the right stuff. They remind me of my Duster crews. I am very lucky to be the XO of B Battery.

Here’s a good example. We are on an airmobile hip shoot along the coast north of Phan Thiet supporting infantry search-and-destroy missions. A big storm comes up and blows down one of our sandbagged bunkers right on top of some of the men. We have to dig one of them out who has a broken shoulder. But flight operations will not send a Medevac chopper until the eye of the storm passes. This guy just guts it out without a whimper. Over an hour later when the chopper is on the way I stand outside with a flashlight in the pouring rain guiding the chopper in. What a mess, but that is what artillery crews do every day during the monsoon season, shoot all night in lousy weather, sleep in the mud, and get shot at through it all.


We are shooting in support of an infantry unit sweeping the outskirts of a good size city, probably Phan Thiet. One night a MACV compound (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) gets hit with mortars and enemy ground probes, and they want illumination directly over their position. This can be dicey because when an illumination round bursts in the air it releases an illumination parachute, and it also sends the medal canister along a forward trajectory. In this instance the canister went through the roof of a building and caused casualties.

The next day a group headed by an officer comes out to investigate. He asks for the data for the fire mission and then he inspects the guns. After he is done he informs me that we violated some guidelines and rules, and there will be an incident report which was not going to be favorable to our team.

I am not happy and decide it is time to defend my team. I tell him that this was an active combat situation, that lives were at stake, that the assault had casualties, that MACV requested the illumination right over their location, that it was a danger close mission (friendlies close to the impact area) which always has risk, and that MACV had a choice of being careful or getting the best illumination. They chose the best illumination possible and took some battle damage from the illumination scrap, and that is the way a battle goes and they should just S-T-F-U (shut the fuck up) and quit whining — and that will be my report. And I say if the same mission comes in tonight I will shoot it the same way, so if that is not SOP then change your rules and guidelines. After he leaves I never hear another word about the incident.

George Buck – B Battery XO – Part Five

The Art and Science of Forward Observing

After that first operation as an FO involving the bamboo pit viper and the papa san, I went on long operations lasting from a week to ten days, and on others that were only one day sweeps. I was never sure who was picking these assignments for me or where they came from, but I figured I must have had a “handler” of some kind because I got my orders in some strange ways – a helicopter pilot telling me after an operation that I was going right back out with another unit, so stay with the choppers. Or maybe to move to another part of the Central Highlands to meet up with an Australian group. Or down to the coast to meet up with a Korean unit. And I had to find my own way to these new assignments by hitch-hiking on choppers, fixed wings or convoys.

I can’t remember all my missions but there were common themes that differentiated what I did versus most FOs. First, when I was out with non-U.S. units we were very careful and deliberate in how we approached reconnaissance missions. We were not large units and we would quickly be on the defensive if we bumped into a large NVA force (North Vietnamese Army). Further, I always worried about the Montagnards or the South Vietnamese bolting on us and leaving us with no infantry protection.

So one of my habits early in an operation was to find a reason to do recon-by-fire on a suspected ambush point. (Dropping artillery on a site as a precaution). If we had been encountering enemy trail watchers it gave us an added measure of offensive security, and it instilled confidence in the Montagnards and the Vietnamese that we would have immediate superiority over a larger NVA force. Seeing our firepower toughened them up and kept them inclined to hold their positions.

The theoretical downside to recon-by-fire was that it announced our presence to the enemy. But that is what the enemy trail watchers were there to do anyway, and besides, you didn’t move fifty men through triple canopy jungle unannounced for very long. So it was well worth the risk. I used recon-by-fire a lot and it must have worked because I was never ambushed by an enemy force on any of my operations, excepting the occasional rifle shot from a trail watcher. But it took a lot of map reading, trail analysis, and collaboration with the Montagnard commanding officer, his men and the whole team to determine when to do this.

A switchback was an excellent location for an enemy ambush, especially for convoys moving up hill.

Road (lower left) into Central Highlands showing switchbacks
Road switchbacks(lower left) into Central Highlands
Winding roads into the Central Highlands
Winding roads into the Central Highlands

The vehicles had to go slow on these roads, and they slowed even more to make the ninety degree turn in the switchbacks. Once through the turn they gained speed going uphill, which separated the vehicles. An ambush here allowed the enemy to sever the convoy and concentrate an attack on either or both ends. To make matters worse the uphill slope of the road had contours that prevented the convoy from returning effective fire. When I escorted convoys with my Duster platoon or with quad 50s I put them in the middle of the convoy so that any ambush had my heavy guns facing right at the enemy.

Setting up for the night a typical night position would be one that was easy to defend, such as high ground with steep slopes and limited approaches to our position. However these sites were also easy mortar targets. So I would often pick non-typical spots for the night, like the side of a steep slope going into a ravine. Such locations were hard to hit with mortars, and also hard for the enemy to find. Then before moving in I would plot target coordinates around us so I had immediate targets to call in when it was dark and confusing.

All that said, we did have lots of firefights and some pretty heavy engagements. But none lasted more than a few hours, and they were all initiated by us, not from an ambush.

Maybe the most important aspect of my FO operations was that we were left alone by my battalion chain of command. There were no field grade officers (majors and colonels) flying around above us telling us to move along, speed it up, take that hill, etc. And the units I was out with, either non-U.S. forces or Special Forces, had their own chains of command that did not have authority over my Dusters, or if they did I didn’t pay attention. On the rare occasion when a chopper showed up with an officer who wanted to get involved I would inform his chopper pilot he was on my gun-target line and I was about to shoot high explosive and white phosphorous rounds, so he better move. That usually cleared the skies.


I remember fondly my time with the Australians. I met the unit down in Phan Thiet at an open field along the beach. Their captain was a veteran of many conflicts starting with Korea. He had one sergeant and one warrant officer. They called the tall sergeant Legs and nicknamed me Guns, after busting my chops about being a first lieutenant and still an FO. I got that ball-busting more than a few times from them.

We took a Montagnard unit led by the Aussies up to Dalat, which was an off-limits city with little to no U.S. presence. The night before the operation kicked off we stayed in an old French Villa occupied by U.S. Covert Operations. All together it was like the bar scene in Star Wars: a bunch of spooks, mercenaries, tribal warriors and Aussies. The next day we moved out on foot to recon the area around the city looking for any sign of enemy presence. The operation lasted about a week and we experienced little activity other than the few prisoners we took and potshots from trail watchers.

The highlight of the operation occurred at night during a downpour. I heard a mortar tube go off and the round hit somewhere towards Dalat. By luck I had targeted and pre-shot coordinates in the area where the mortar tube was heard, and I had it logged in with the nearby artillery fire direction control. Without ever leaving the hammock I reached back for the handset and called in a mission on that target number. In came the rounds and that was the last we heard of the mortars. The Australian captain liked that a lot, and now I was part of the team. Every FO was an outsider until he did something good for the team. You had to prove yourself with every new unit you went out with.

More Montagnard Memories

My next few operations were with U.S. Special Forces and the Montagnards. The Montagnards were an interesting group. One highlight I remember, we ran into a South Vietnamese unit and a firefight broke out between them and our Montagnards, who hated each other. It took a half hour to get them to stop shooting at each other, somehow without casualties. Another was when we bumped into a group of tree apes and the Montagnards shot one out of the tree. We immediately stopped for the day, and the Montagnards built a fire and cooked the poor thing. I ate C rations. Then later we went through a Vietnamese village, and by the time we got through it most every Montagnard had broken ranks to catch a chicken for the pot.

Orders Are Orders

There are more operations, but I’ll skip to the last one, which is almost as bad as my first with the ARVN commanding officer who wanted me to blow up a papa san.

I get orders to leave Dalat and go over to the coast north of Qui Nhon to a spot controlled by a Korean division. I arrive at this little firebase in a beautiful coastal location where there is a U.S. artillery battery and a headquarters commanded by a Korean colonel. It’s like R&R – hot food, a shower, no mortars, no snipers, no attacks, and very little enemy activity. Seriously, this is nice.

A few days go by and the Korean colonel wants to run a day sweep up into the foothills at the back side of an expansive rice paddy complex. We get rations and supplies for a few days in case we got into something big and have an extended engagement. I meet the company commanding officer, a Korean captain and his other officers. Then we have a briefing with the colonel’s staff, the artillery commanding officer and other participants. It all seems to be fairly well organized. The Koreans have a reputation of being a no nonsense group so I am not expecting much to go wrong.

We load up on trucks and head out a dirt road to an area that gives us close access to a trail complex that goes up into the mountains and is obviously an enemy supply line. In the heart of the Central Highlands a trail complex like this might belong to a Montagnard village to cut wood for their charcoal kilns. But here along the coast there are no Montagnards, and the Vietnamese do not go up into the hills unless they are part of an enemy supply operation. So this is a high probability enemy trail.

We get off of the trucks, form up in a dispersed column and head for the base of the hills, where we find signs of enemy activity. Immediately the Korean captain starts giving out orders, which I don’t understand, and off they move to the side of the hill, not up the hill. I stop the captain and ask what is going on. He gives me some BS about, No activity here so we have to move down the valley to find some. At which I tell him I have to make some calls on the radio. I call my artillery fire direction control and tell them the plan has been changed and that nothing gets shot unless it comes from me. I tell them there are plenty of enemy signs, but for some reason the commanding officer is changing the plan. For the rest of the day we do nothing but move slowly down the valley, stopping often to “check things out,” basically wasting the day and not going up into the hills looking for enemy activity like we were ordered. I come to the conclusion that my Korean captain saw too much enemy activity at the first spot and simply lost his nerve. All along I am sending situation reports back to our fire direction control which, it turns out, the Korean colonel is monitoring from basecamp.

Finally we head into a small village out in the rice paddies for our scheduled pickup, but now from the wrong direction based upon the original plan. I tell the Korean captain this is not going to be good. When we get to the village there is the Korean colonel waiting for us. One of his staff comes up and signals for me and my RTO to come forward. I salute the colonel and he thanks me for my honest reports and apologizes for the poor performance of his officers. He instructs me and my RTO to take a jeep and head back to the basecamp. As we are leaving all I can hear is a lot of screaming and yelling. I never saw the Korean captain again, maybe because he left the village in a body bag.

Lieutenant Buck is joking about the body bag but not by much. The Koreans were famous for ruthless tenacity in battle, and within their own ranks for brutal discipline that often featured a public beating.

George Buck – B Battery XO – Part Four

Starting Over

I had been in Vietnam now for over four months as a Duster platoon leader, and now it was time to go home to field artillery. On May 1, 1968 First Field Forces assigned me to the 5th Battalion/27th Artillery at Phan Rang. (The 5/27 battalion headquarters had just moved from Tuy Hoa to Phan Rang a month earlier on April 13.) I reported to Lieutenant Colonel John Crosby who had just arrived in Vietnam and was taking charge of the battalion. Keep in mind this was the first battalion commander I had met in person other than those commanding the units we supported in our Duster platoons.

The colonel and I had a little chat about the things I had been doing, and then we got down to business. His operational plan called any new officer into the battalion to spend time as a forward observer. I was not surprised by this simply because that is the order of how things should flow. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. I had already spent four months in fairly heavy action, had been promoted to first lieutenant and executive officer of the Duster battery, and here I was starting all over again. Still it made sense in that I had already been in situations where I had called in artillery, and I had learned a lot about the enemy and his combat strategies. I made an attempt to sell that as a positive in support of my new assignment. I said that I had already shot a lot of artillery so I would be a good candidate for liaison type FO assignments. I think Colonel Crosby liked that I was on the same page with him. So off to forward observer school I went, and feeling like I was the only first lieutenant FO in Vietnam. (They were usually second lieutenants.)

I am not sure where FO school was but somehow An Khe rings a bell (correct). A few weeks of getting back into the flow of move-shoot-communicate, and off I went to my first assignment, which was really a creepy deal and the kind of stuff that never shows up on situation reports.

Shopping for Hammocks

I operated out of C Battery up at Dalat and had the official title of assistant XO of the battery, but trust me I was never near being the executive officer and was only at the battery once. I called in artillery fire mostly for non-U.S. operational forces: Australian Special Forces, Korean infantry, and ARVN (South Vietnamese) Rangers. The only exception was an occasional mission for U.S. Special Forces operations with the Montagnards (tribal forces who fought for the Americans).

My first FO operation was up in the southern Central Highlands with ARVN Rangers, commanded by a lieutenant colonel who was also the battalion commander. Joining us were a MACV captain (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and his sergeant. This seemed to be a good first operation since it was a fairly large battalion and I was glad to have the MACV company. Things went down hill from there.

The first night out everyone pulled out hammocks for sleeping. But my RTO (radio telephone operator) and I did not have hammocks, so on the ground it was going to be. I had never slept on the ground because of all the stuff that crawls around at night. I kicked a dead log apart to create a soft spot for my poncho liner and out crawls a bamboo viper.

The bite of a bamboo pit viper is extremely painful. Within a few minutes the surrounding flesh turns black and begins to rot.

I didn’t know what it was but when the ARVNs saw the snake they went nuts and chased it around with machetes. Finally they killed it. I think I slept that night sitting against a tree with one eye open.

The next day we got into a decent sized firefight that went on for an hour or more. Once my artillery landed on the enemy position everything calmed down. We went in to check out the site, and this is when my RTO and I got our hammocks – off dead NVA. The hammocks had a few holes in them but were quite serviceable and lasted me the next few months, the whole time I was a forward observer. After that snake incident there was no more sleeping on the ground.

Alone Again

A few days later I had to deal with one of the most difficult situations of my entire tour. We were moving along a saddle connecting two higher ridges. Below was a small hollow that contained an ancient farm with half a dozen outbuildings and a hootch or two. There was an old papa san out tilling a rice paddy with a water buffalo. The ARVN battalion commander wanted me to call artillery in on the field, the hootches and the outbuildings. I looked at my MACV captain and he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, Its their country, do as he says.

I refused the order. I told the battalion commander it was not necessary and a waste of ammo, which we would need if we ran into a superior enemy force – at which he went nuts. By now my MACV captain had walked away. I had no idea what was going to happen but felt I had to make the next move. I told the ARVN commander I would personally take a squad of his infantry down to the field edge, with the remainder of the battalion moving as a blocking force at the sides and the back of the hollow. I said if I got shot at I would call in artillery, otherwise we would simply move through the hollow and regroup on the other side.

The plan worked. We encountered no enemy and did not even see signs of activity. But the damage was done.  I could not trust this ARVN colonel or my MACV team.  I was on my own again, and it did not feel good.

A papa san and his water buffaloes Picture courtesy Mike Lauricella
A papa san and his water buffaloes
Picture courtesy Mike Lauricella


If I had blown this papa san up, it could have become known high up in the Vietnamese chain of command, and then would have spilled over to MACV and First Field Forces, which would have been catastrophic for our 5/27 battalion. Frankly I think every FO in Vietnam at one time was put on the spot to do something that he instinctively knew was not right or was immoral. Dealing with higher level field grade officers in conflicting situations were one the biggest challenges I had as a young combat officer. It was no fun for my RTO either. I went through five of them before I got the one I wanted.

Too Visible

This is a good spot to talk about my RTOs. I had more than a few because we made it a volunteer job and initially the first sergeant picked them for me. You can figure out what that meant. I got the newbies, the malcontents, and a couple who were overweight and in terrible shape. I told the first sergeant if I had another problem he would be my next RTO. So the next one was a good one, a kid from South Carolina. He was an athlete, a hunter and a good shot. He also was a volunteer who wanted the job, and he learned how to call in artillery himself, giving us a backup if I got disabled. I was really lucky and we were a good team.

Being an RTO with an FO assigned to non-U.S. units was extremely dangerous. He carried a big radio, had the hand set, wore a different uniform than the unit we were with, and in general stuck out like a sore thumb. For that matter so did I, carrying a map and always beside the unit commander. Our being so visible is what caused us to employ a technique called recon-by-fire. I would drop artillery rounds on a suspected ambush site in order to trigger ambushes before we ran into them. It was especially useful if we had been bumping into trail watchers (enemy spotters). As a survival technique recon-by-fire put us always on the offensive and killing at a distance.

George Buck – B Battery XO – Part Three

Coelis Imperamus

After Acosta and Donovan died we headed up to Pleiku to the battery headquarters for a few days of rest, maintenance, the PX, a shower and decent hot food. Then it was off to Kontum on Highway 14. We spent a week in Kontum guarding a bridge over a large river. There were compounds housing other units and I think they even had an Officers Club, but we were far too busy to allow any time for recreational activities.

Then we moved down a remote road near Kontum to a Special Forces camp that had a small airstrip and firebase. It was seeing heavy action every night as NVA (North Vietnamese Army) units kept probing and attacking. We were there for perimeter security. I had both Duster crews with me now, and for whatever reason I was given orders separate from my crew to go to Dak To or back to Pleiku, I can’t remember where or why I went, but I know that I did not go with the convoy into the fire base. A day or two later I came in on a chopper.

When I got there I found both Dusters well positioned and able to fire with interlocking fields of fire. Every angle of the firebase was covered by at least one of the Dusters. Another example that Duster crews operated on their own without a lot of instruction, especially when they had good crew chiefs.

At the first briefing with the Special Forces staff the battalion commander wanted to know what our capabilities were. I gave him the details of what the guns could do and recommended a mad minute sometime after midnight when the enemy was most likely to probe the perimeter. I said to him, “We will either catch the enemy and kill dozens of them, or once they see what we have they won’t bother you until we leave. Either way we’ll be a winner.”

The mad minute went off as planned and it was awesome. The two Duster crews aimed to their outside and slowly brought the guns into their interlocking fire zone. All Duster rounds are tracers and when the two Dusters interlocked one shower of tracer rounds hung over the other. All Duster rounds are also timed, so that when the tracer burns out the round explodes in the air and creates flak. The crossing tracers and air explosions made for an impressive display. Remember, these are air defense weapons designed to shoot at planes, point-detonating if they hit the plane, or self-detonating in the air. Dusters were even more effective against ground forces which had no protection against 40 mm shells exploding over their heads.

The next day a constant stream of infantry came over wanting to transfer into Dusters.

Coelis Imperamus We Rule the Heavens Motto of the 60th Duster Regiment
Coelis Imperamus – We Rule the Heavens
Motto of the 60th Duster Regiment

Mysterious Dak To

From Kontum our next stop was Dak To twenty-five miles north, to the site of brutal battles six months earlier when the 173rd Airborne Brigade tried to take a hill occupied by an entrenched and very large unit of NVA regulars. The 173rd took major casualties. The NVA were dug in on high ground and shot from reinforced bunkers, while our infantry crawled up the hill. For me it was a good example of why our “Kill at a Distance” was so important. I would have bombed them, hit them repeatedly all night long with artillery, napalmed them, and kept it up until they died or starved to death. Why risk U.S. soldiers to take a hill that we would abandon a few weeks later just to dig out some NVA?

Our basecamp at Dak To was big, with multiple units, plenty of majors and colonels, and a CIA unit running LRRP teams into who knows where (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols). The same time every afternoon the NVA shot huge 122 mm rockets into the basecamp. The camp was big enough that they only had to point the rockets in our direction and they’d hit something.

After we arrived the first time they launched a rocket at us our gun crews were on the guns, all guns blazing 40 mm cannon fire back at the rocket site. Meanwhile everyone else in the basecamp were hunkered in their bunkers. Later that afternoon at the camp briefing I was asked what we thought we were doing. I said, “When a Duster gets shot at, it shoots back. We are the First to Fire, Last to Leave.” I went a step further. “Sirs, these are FU (Fuck You) Rockets. They shoot from the same spot every day at the same time saying, ‘FU. You can’t do anything about it and until you do the rockets will keep coming.’”

There was artillery at the Dak To camp but they never returned fire. I offered to target for them but nothing came of it. I was there a few more weeks with nothing much to challenge us beyond the rocket activity, which declined over time, maybe because of our return fire. Or maybe they ran out of rockets. That and the senseless casualties of the 173rd made Dak To a mystery to me.


After three months I was called back to battery headquarters in Pleiku, promoted to 1st lieutenant, and appointed the battery XO (executive officer). This was a surprise since I was out of my field artillery specialty and now second in command of the entire battery (sixteen Dusters). I wore Field Artillery insignia, not the Air Defense insignia the other battalion officers wore. At some point I think a battalion visitor noticed this and spilled the beans to the battalion commander. I am in this job hardly long enough for a cup of coffee when the battery commander comes to me and says, “We got a problem. You have to go back to Field Artillery.” On reflection I think they put me in the XO slot until they figured out what to do with me. It was likely never intended as a permanent position.

I very much enjoyed being a Duster platoon leader and I considered it to be an honor to have served with them. In many respects it was an easy job because all of the crews were self sufficient, fearless in the tub, knew the mission cold, and were truly the first to fire and the last to leave when the action was hot. Every day they put the safety of their fellow soldiers and marines before their own. As a result Duster battalions took the largest number of casualties within the artillery battalions in the Vietnam War. We had a man awarded the Medal of Honor (Sergeant Mitchell Stout held an enemy grenade to his stomach inside a bunker, shielding fellow soldiers).

Still I was an outsider. It was time to go home to Field Artillery and the howitzers for which I was trained.

George Buck – B Battery XO (Executive Officer) – Part Two

Highway 19

The French built Highway 19 in the early 20th century to be the main road connecting the Central Highlands with the coast. Highway 19 was a belt across the midsection of Vietnam, from Pleiku in the west to Qui Nhon on the coast. When tightened it could starve half the country. There was a saying in Vietnam: “Whoever controls Highway 19 controls the Highlands, and whoever controls the Highlands controls Vietnam.” Along its path at Mang Yang Pass in 1954, the French suffered the last and one of the bloodiest defeats of their engagement in Indochina. 

HW 19 - Yang Mang Pass

My two Dusters covered a lot of territory. We traveled from near the Mang Yang Pass on Highway 19 down towards An Khe all the way up to Pleiku, then up Highway 14 to Kontum, out to a Special Forces camp near the border on an old dirt road, then to the base at Dak To. On Highway 19 near a Montagnard village is where I lost Acosta and Donovan when they drove over a land mine in my jeep.

PFC John Acosta and Specialist 4 Michael Donovan were both twenty years old when they died on January 21, 1968, just two years younger than assistant platoon leader George Buck. All three had been on their assignments for only three weeks.

Montagnard village on Highway 19 where Acosta and Donovan died
Montagnard village on Highway 19 where Acosta and Donovan died 

Kill at a Distance

 As assistant platoon leader – the lowest rung on the ladder for a field lieutenant – George Buck had little say in correcting the dangerous practice of riding on the dirt shoulder of a paved road. When he took over as platoon leader he was determined to make changes.

After this tragedy the platoon leader went to another assignment, and now the platoon was mine.  It was an exercise in isolation. I was fifty miles from the battery commander. The battalion headquarters was down on the coast somewhere; I was never there, never ever met the battalion commander, and never saw anyone from the battalion other than the chaplain who came to our bridge site to run a memorial service for Acosta and Donovan.

I wrote letters to the families of both of our lost men, and each of the crew signed too.  We got replies back from the families that helped with our sense of loss, but I swore that I would never lose another man in Vietnam, and for the rest of the year I lost no one in either Heavy Automatic Weapons or my Field Artillery assignments. Probably dumb luck but I would like to think the attention to detail on every job made a difference.

First I did not replace my jeep (a quarter ton utility vehicle). All personnel were to ride in a three quarter ton truck or preferably the two and a half ton trucks we used for hauling ammo. Every vehicle was sandbagged as much as possible, and they all carried either M-60 or 50-caliber machine guns.

I had a unique advantage in the fact I was also a Field Artillery officer, giving me the capability of fire from any artillery unit within range. Whenever possible I made contact with these artillery batteries and got preclearance from Fire Direction Control to call in artillery. Now when we got mortared I could respond with indirect fire from artillery as well as direct fire from the Dusters and Quads themselves, which was an enormous amount of firepower. (Indirect fire: heavy shells lobbed from afar. Direct fire: directly at a target.)

The mission became: Kill at a Distance, which meant don’t let the enemy get in close, go around villages if there are open fields, and don’t let anyone get close to the Dusters and Quads. This seemed to work. The platoon became much more cautious, and the only battle damage we had after that were just little bumps and bruises.

War Zone Democracy

My platoon was two Duster units, and often Quad-50 machine guns and a searchlight unit. These crews were extremely competent and only needed a mission plan to execute on their own. We operated at the “food and shelter” level of existence. That’s all they needed to move, shoot and communicate on their own. This was critical because they would deploy individually in the field, often at bridge sites to keep them from getting blown up at night. A Duster crew might be the only defense at that bridge and for miles on either side. It was not unusual to find them sleeping by day and working all night. Who could sleep when all you had was one Duster and a half dozen crew if you were lucky?

I maintained my platoon headquarters with one Duster at a bridge site where most of the convoy ambushes occurred. I had a second Duster crew at another bridge site closer to Pleiku where there was not as much action. I had to travel every other day or so to this other bridge site, and sometimes I would stay over. I had a problem there that was very troubling. The crew chief had a substance abuse problem of some kind. I started finding him spaced out and asleep when I would arrive. After three of these incidents within ten days, and discussions with him and the crew, I relieved him of his crew chief job. I simply told him he was being reassigned to battery headquarters.

The battery commander agreed to take him even though he did not know what he was going to do with him. At the same time he told me there were no candidates to replace him and I had to do with what I had. I said send me a fresh body and I will choose a new crew chief from the crew. I told the crew to think about who would be the best crew chief from among them. The guy had to be the best possible leader among them, nothing more. After I got the old chief on a Military Police truck and off to Pleiku the crew said they handled things and had picked a new crew chief.

He was young like all of the crew, Hispanic like most of the crew, and not someone who tried to stand out. This was my remote crew who I saw only three or four times a week. Duster crews were well oiled operations and worked best with crew chiefs who lead by example versus a strong personality. Competence was more important over charisma . This crew never missed a beat and I felt much more comfortable now that they did not have to worry about a crew chief spaced out on drugs or alcohol.

Because of the heavy casualties suffered in the heavy automatic weapons battalions they were always understaffed, and I’ll add under equipped. There were occasions where infantry and marines filled out crews. I was a prime example of someone plucked from another MOS to head a platoon. Picking a trained Duster man for a crew chief was preferable to me, and the crew knew more about itself than I did so I went with their input.

I don’t recall any training on how to handle a situation like this. Further, I was out there by myself. It is not like I had a battalion staff to help me or even the battery commander or first sergeant. The typical answer a lieutenant would get in a situation like this was simply, “Do the best you can, make it work, and don’t rock the boat too much.”

In the buildup to the American revolution the Minute Men of New England chose their own captains, who in turn selected battalion and field grade officers. Lieutenant Buck acted in that fine American tradition.

Combat Cuisine


We get assigned to this village and bridge site. The Ruff Puffs come out to guard the bridge and they have a dog with them. One of my guys is talking about how they are just like us: they have pets, come to our barbeques, give us bananas, and have nice villages. A shot rings out from the bridge and everyone is on the gun ready to go. Then we see poor Fido thrown on the fire. Now it is clear their pet was really their dinner.

Main Course

Two weeks after the crew chief change there is movement and noise outside the perimeter wire, which we had just reinforced as one of our security initiatives. The crew immediately opens fire with the Duster and everything goes still. The next morning what lies dead on the perimeter is an enormous water buffalo. The new crew chief calls me at my headquarters and tells me they have this problem. We weren’t supposed to shoot water buffalo, but who knew that was what it was? All they heard was noise and they opened fire. That is how you stayed alive.

I have no problem with the events, but now I have to go down there to the Montagnard village up the road and tell them what happened. We go there with the Duster so no one gets upset that they lost a water buffalo. Through sign language we tell them that they have a dead animal on the wire and please go get it. Somehow we get through to them but I have a sense they already know.

So a day goes by. Then another. This carcass on our wire blows up to the size of hot air balloon, and its legs look like little dots. Finally, after five days here comes a long line of Montagnard men with fleshing knives on long poles, like on old whaling expeditions. They carve up this rotting animal so there is nothing left but the skeleton, like what you would see in a museum.

Disgusting, but they hung it all out to dry at their village and I guess they ate it.


On my trips between Duster sites I notice wild pigs feeding on new grasses that row up after bulldozers push the forest back from the road. The dozers do this regularly to make it tougher to ambush convoys. We have a gunner on the crew at my headquarters the guys call Country, who is a hog farmer from Missouri. Country says these wild pigs would taste good. The problem is you can’t drop them on the spot with the light round from an M16, and no one is going into the jungle to follow blood trails. You need a bigger rifle.

So back at the Headquarters bridge where the Ruff Puffs (Regional and Popular Forces) hang out I go over and speak with their lieutenant who knows English, and tell him I need an M14 or an M1 (larger cartridge weapons replaced by the M16). They have carbines (ancient French rifles) so he can’t help me right away, but if we get him something to trade he can get one.  We arrange the trade for an M14 and Country becomes our pig-sniper. Within a week he makes a kill, a nice young wild pig of maybe fifty pounds.

The crew gets the pig back and hangs it from the 40 mm gun barrels and Country skins it out and starts to cut it up. Here come the Montagnards and the Ruff Puffs. One of the crew throws the hide and head into the river and before it hits the water the Montagnards and the Vietnamese are fighting over it. This is not good, typically they don’t like each other and don’t associate. So we stop the fight and declare that everyone will get something. We take the back-straps, one hindquarter and the filets for ourselves. The rest we cut up and portion out to our new friends. We use a metal drum cut in half for a barbeque pit and have a community cookout. The Montagnards give us the charcoal, which is their main industry, and the Vietnamese provide rice wine. Again I remember thinking none of this was in any of my training manuals.