Monthly Archives: October 2015

Ernie Rich – Gun Crew – Part Three

An Occupational Hazard

I am in the guard tower by the main gate when two guys come up to the wire on bicycles with two girls riding on back. The girls are prostitutes and the guys are South Vietnamese soldiers in uniform. I turn my M-60 machine gun on them and I’m ready to blow them away. There’s a 1500 meter no-go around our perimeter, and I can’t be sure these guys aren’t Vietcong. I call back and say send Vin our interpreter out to talk to them. Along with him the captain comes out, the First Sergeant comes out, Chief of Smoke comes out, and everybody gets to talking to them. They say they just want to drop these girls off and come back and get them later.

They leave the girls and get on their bikes, and then everyone else goes back inside. As these guys are riding off the VC open up on them with AKs, catch them in a cross fire and kill them. I can’t believe what I am seeing and start laughing. Right there in the dirt they go down. I’m thinking, You dumb idiots, how damn stupid can you be? I call back and say, “You’re not going to believe this. The VC just killed those two ARVNs right outside the wire. Two bikes out there and two dead guys.” They say, “Well we got to get the bodies back.” So we go out to get the bodies back in and I am waiting to get shot too. When you get down to it, in the Vietnamese culture these guys were disgracing the Vietnamese people by turning girls into prostitutes. That’s why the VC shot them. They don’t bother me while I’m gathering the bodies, I guess because I didn’t bother them.

Chasing the NVA

It was a Sunday afternoon and a Chinook helicopter was on its way out to us with a load of ammo. Freight Train was the name of the Chinook, and it had everything hanging in a sling beneath it: Claymore mines, grenades, small arms ammo, C-4 explosive, artillery rounds. As it approached the battery the sling broke and dumped everything on the ground. The pilots tried to land to retrieve the load, but started getting shot at. They left and at a safe distance radio’d into LZ Sherry that they needed somebody to come out and help get the ammo back.

If this ammo fell into enemy hands they would put it to good use, as road mines, booby traps and ammo for their black market M-16s.

Top asked for volunteers to go get the ammo back. I turned around to walk away and Top said, “Where you going?”

I said, “To get my gear.” I was his first volunteer and when I got back there were sixteen of us.

The Chinook came into LZ Sherry and took us out to the site, where we ran into a real hornets nest. Over the ammo site we started taking heavy fire. The pilot didn’t want to land, or even hang around, so he just dumped us out the back cargo gate like a load of gravel. It felt like we were twenty-five feet in the air. Even his crew chief went out because he wasn’t expecting it. He was standing with us in the back and went out with everybody else. It was not his intention to go at all, believe me. We all landed in a pile on the ground. The crew chief was so pissed he started firing his .45 at the Chinook as it flew away. I said to him, “You might want to save that for the guys out there. Don’t worry about the guys in the chopper, we can kill them when we get back.” It was funny.

We spread out along a rice paddy dyke and the VC retreated. Top is walking back and forth on the berm yelling, “Can’t you take these guys?”

I said, “Can do, Top,” and I took off running after them toward the tree line. A quarter of a mile away I was all by myself. I found a trail and followed it down to a place down by a creek that looked like a perfect ambush location, with sheer rock up on either side with a big teak log laying across the creek. At the same time I noticed tracks indicating a very large force had been through there. The adrenalin was pumping, and I said to myself, Good God what are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere with everybody else way back there? You got no help, no radio; you got nobody.

Now I was afraid of what’s in front of me. We didn’t have near the ammo or personnel to take on a large force. I dropped down on one knee and made gestures like I’m calling my main force up. The chopper has been making short in and out runs picking up small loads of ammo, not staying long or putting down on the ground, so maybe they’re thinking it’s troops coming in and I was the main force. At least that’s what I hoped.

After a little while I turned and ran like hell. There were lots of booby traps out there on the trails, so I’m bustin’ making my own path. I made it back to the helicopter, maybe forty-five minutes later. Top said, “Where the hell you been? We thought you bought the farm.”

“No, I was running them down, doing what we’re supposed to do.”

Top said, “You bring anything back?” He meant a weapon, recovered ammo, or anything to show I’d encountered the enemy – I suppose for some kind of citation.

I said, “No, Top, I didn’t bring anything back. I’m not real interested in that.” A Special Forces squad scouted the area the next morning and reported back to us the we had run into the 33rd NVA Battalion out there: 2400 of them. I’m glad I didn’t go hunting for stuff.

We loaded the ammo into a new sling and took it back to Sherry. We couldn’t use any of the artillery rounds because they had been dropped. We hauled them a few hundred yards off the perimeter and had a demolition crew come out to blow it all up. I got only one picture because the shrapnel started falling all over the battery and we had to dive for cover.

Ammo demolition
Ammo demolition

The Ernie Rich Memorial River

 Everyone in the field in Vietnam encountered at least one close call before it was all over. This one of Ernie’s is no double the most bizarre in the annals of the Vietnam conflict. It hinges on the geographic location of LZ Sherry in a basin of rice paddies that, while five miles from the South China Sea, was just a few feet above sea level. During monsoon season when the ground was saturated it gave off a faint fishy odor.

We got hit the night before and were out filling sandbags to repair damaged hooches. I’m just outside the wire with Sergeant Rock, we called him that because he looked like Hercules. His real name was Dave Hansford. And Ed McConnell is with us, who got hit in the head with shrapnel the night before, blood all over him. He had a bandage wrapped around his head, and on orders from Doc we just used him for holding the sandbags while we filled them.

Normally filling sandbags you’d just dig down a couple feet, but I got goofy with the shovel and dug a hole I could not get out of it was so deep. All of a sudden the ground got like I was standing on Jell-O. Rock came over and I said, “Look at this, Rock. The ground’s moving. Get me the hell out of here.” So he reaches down and pulls me out.

He looks down and says, “Damn, Rich, you dug down below sea level.”

Then the whole bottom caved in and it was swift, rushing water. Rock went and cut this big ‘ol branch off with a machete. He said, “It can’t be that deep.” He threw the limb in and it disappeared. The current took it like pulling a cleaning cloth through the barrel of a gun, that’s how quick it disappeared. There was no finding the bottom of that thing. Rock said, “God, Rich, you’d have been MIA forever.”

I said, “Yeah, I would have been. The least you could do would be to name it after me.”

Ernie Rich – Gun Crew – Part Two

LZ Sherry

The Return of Gun Three

 We brought Gun 3 back to Sherry, crew and all, in October of 1970. We had to build a new parapet for the gun and all new hooches for the crew. The only spot available was an open area just inside the first strand of wire near where an ARVN force had been earlier in the year.

The original location of Gun 3 was in the middle of the array of six howitzers, where it functioned as the battery base piece, the gun from which firing data was computed. After it took a direct mortar hit the previous summer, a new Gun 3 was sent on loan up to LZ Sandy, and its location at Sherry was never again used as a gun parapet. Instead it was rebuilt with more sandbag hooches. When Gun 3 returned to Sherry it had to find a new location.

Two months after its return to Sherry, after being gone for over a year, Gun 3 was again the center of action.

We weren’t back at Sherry very long when we took two direct hits on our ammo bunker from a 75mm recoilless rifle. The first round point detonated to the left of the bunker door, and all it did was ignite some powder bags in the doorway and burn the outside of the sandbags. They didn’t get what they needed out of that round so the next one they fired had a delayed time fuse. They wanted it to detonate inside the ammo bunker, but the time fuse was set too long and the round went through the front wall to the right of the bunker door and clear out the back wall. The guys on Gun 5 said it detonated outside the berm behind the bunker. Nobody was killed. Three guys were wounded but not real bad. We were lucky it didn’t detonate inside the ammo bunker.

Gun 3 ammo bunker
Gun 3 ammo bunker
Inside Gun 3 ammo bunker Note projectiles (lower left) and rocket exit hole (upper right)
Inside Gun 3 ammo bunker
Note projectiles (lower left) and rocket exit hole (upper right)

A poor shower over on Gun 2 also took a direct hit.

Gun 2 shower
Gun 2 shower

Shrapnel and fins scattered across the battery indicated that mortars and 40 mm rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) were also used in the attack. Three men were wounded that night.

Chief of Smoke

Senior sergeant in charge of the howitzer crews

Smoke had all four of his teeth done on R&R in either Bangkok or Thailand. He came back and on his four front teeth he had a heart, a spade, a club and a diamond, all outlined in gold.

Chief of Smoke
Chief of Smoke


The sad part is I don’t remember his name. He was a nice guy and I know he liked his 12 gauge Ithaca pump shotgun. He carried that shotgun and a .45 pistol instead of an M-16.

I remember that shotgun. We had a dog named Junior come back with us from LZ Sandy. During a mortar attack up at Sandy that dog leapt on the back of Sgt. Smith and took a mortar blast that could have messed up the sergeant. Now Junior was like a member of our crew. Down at Sherry there were too many dogs and we had to get rid of Junior. I wasn’t going to give him to the ARVNs because I didn’t want him to end up on a Vietnamese menu. Smoke said I had to shoot him.

We took Junior out, dug a hole for him, and when he looked up at me from that hole I said, “I can’t shoot that dog, I’d rather shoot myself.” Hell, I would have taken Junior home with me if I could. So Smoke turned around and shot Junior with that Ithaca and killed him. And that was it.

Up at Sandy I didn’t have any trouble shooting Noodle Legs because she was suffering so much. But this was a healthy dog who saved a guy’s life. Besides, I was never a big cat lover.


One day First Sergeant Stolberg has us on a perimeter patrol, with some of us out ahead. Here comes my Papa-san and his daughter Lin with his cart, and when he sees me he drops the cart and starts running toward me. My guys are getting ready to shoot him and I yell not to shoot. They say why not, and I say, “Because he’s my Vietnamese father.” By now Papa-san is hugging me and crying.

Top says, “You got to be kidding me.”

Lin, 16 years old
Lin, 16 years old

Tomorrow Maybe, But Not Today

I owe my life to Van Yaeger’s Express, the quad-50 guys, and the guys on Zig-Zag, the Duster.

Von Yaeger's Express

We are doing a convoy and I say I do not want to be on point today. Usually I like to walk point, I don’t have any problem with that, but today I want to take it easy. I’ll hang back there with Blue, was the guy’s name, and help sweep the road. Blue did a tour in Vietnam, went to Germany, got married, his wife divorced him, and now he’s back in Vietnam. I think he has a death wish because he keeps stomping on the ground when he finds something suspicious.

I say, “Don’t do that, man, you’re makin’ me nervous.”

He says, “Ah, it’s nothin’.”

And I say, “… yet.”

He does it again and I dig down where he had stomped and there’s a five-gallon gas can in the ground, but luckily no explosives. Then we find a couple spider holes, crawl over them, and check them out because they can be booby-trapped. One we have to clear stuff out of, and Blue comes up with a long tree branch and pokes around inside. I finally say, “Forget this. You’re nuts and you’re going to get us both killed. Tell you what, I’m gonna go walk point.” I go up to the guy walking point and ask to switch with him. He is fine with that because he does not want to be on point. I say, “I’d rather take my chances up here.”

We are due to intersect with the little people, South Vietnamese Rangers. First Sergeant Stolberg comes up to me with orders from the captain; whatever you do, don’t shoot at them. I say, “OK, I won’t shoot.” I understand that they’re friendlies.

There are four of them. When I walk into their kill zone and they open up on me with an M-60 machine gun, M-16s and a grenade launcher. They have the high ground and all I have is this high, tall dead grass. You dive into the grass and there’s punji sticks in there you get shish-kabob’d, but I got no choice. I flop in as far as I can, don’t get shish-kabob‘d, and start rolling back and forth. I’d hear the phoomp from a grenade launcher, I roll and the grenade hits right where I was. M-16 rounds are flying through there; M-60 machine gun rounds are flying through there. This goes on and they’re getting too close and I am getting so tired rolling through the grass I can hardly move. Three different times I hear the captain and Top call to “CEASE FIRE, you’ve got one of our men pinned down.” I do not shoot back, I do what I was told, but boy do I ever want to. I never fire a shot.

The Duster and Quad guys finally say, Rich ain’t gonna make it, they’re gonna kill him. So they pull up and shoot into the treetops over their heads. Then the Rangers decide to stop shooting. They come out and they walk up close to me. I have my finder on the trigger of my M-16 and set on rock -n-roll (full automatic) and I am now going to kill all of them. They are the enemy as far as I am concerned and they knew damn well I was an American. There ain’t too many Vietnamese my size.

The lieutenant comes up from behind, he sees my finger on the trigger and grabs me by the arm and says, “Rich, don’t shoot. If you kill them I’ll have to send you to LBJ (Long Binh Jail). You’re a good soldier. You can’t kill them today, but maybe tomorrow. Go see Top and get a beer.”

I go back and sit in the jeep madder ‘n hell and cussin’. First Sergeant Stolberg is just as mad as me, and the look on his face – remember how red his face got? – he just stares out shaking his head. I think he would like to kill them himself.

Zigging When He Should Be Zagging

 One night we get hit and a white star cluster goes up, which means the enemy is in the wire and we could be under a ground attack. We fire the howitzers in defense along with the Quads, Dusters and tower machine guns. Then everything gets really quiet and I see somebody moving in the wire right in front of us. I tell Tommy Waldren, one of my crew, that somebody’s got to go out and see who it is, whether it’s an enemy or an American, because I don’t want to shoot the guy. I wouldn’t tell nobody to go out there to do something I wouldn’t do myself. So I tell him I’m going out and he should climb up on top of the perimeter bunker, lay there, and when he sees the guy turn a flashlight on him and hold it.

So I go out into the wire and I’m sneaking through it and I’ve got my rifle on rock-n-roll, my finger on the trigger. I see the guy and he has sandy brown hair. If he had dark hair I probably would have shot him. Tommy turns that flashlight on and it’s a Duster guy. I say, “Damn you” and I hit him BAM in the head with the butt of my rifle I am so mad. “I damn near killed you.” He says he was going to check on Mama-san (the older Vietnamese woman in charge of the civilian helpers) to make sure she was alright. I say, “Mama-san’s the least of your worries, buddy. Get back to your post.” He gets a little pissed and I say, “You get back to your post right now or I’m going to put a red star cluster right up your ass.”

A red star cluster indicated a beehive round, containing 8000 metal fleshettes, was about to be fired in the direction of the cluster, making Rich’s threat especially painful.

I am hot … I am very hot. After that we become good friends.

Ernie on Zig-Zag with the Duster friend he almost shot (head peaking out)
Ernie on Zig-Zag with the Duster friend he almost shot (head peaking out)

Ernie Rich – Gun Crew – Part One


My older brother was in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry, was shot up and lost a leg. I tried to enlist in the Marines when I was seventeen, but my mom would not sign the permission form. And she did not want me to be a Marine. So I waited until I was 19 and enlisted on my own. The day I went down to enlist they were recruiting for Marines, but I said no, I wanted tanks in the Army. There were no openings in tanks, and that’s how I ended up in the artillery. After basic training and then artillery training at Ft. Sill, I went to jungle training at Ft. Lewis, Washington. After that straight to Vietnam.

Ernie’s Vietnam adventures began on the way to his first assignment at LZ Sherry. Like everyone on their way to Sherry at that time he processed through its forward command post at LZ Betty, a large administrative complex outside Phan Thiet.

Note: LZ, or landing zone, was a term applied to air assault locations ranging from a patch in the jungle to permanent sprawling compounds like Betty.

In early May 1970 I was on the chopper pad at LZ Betty with two other guys waiting to go out to LZ Sherry. That’s the night Betty was overrun.

In the early morning hours of May 3 an NVA infantry battalion of five companies in consort with five companies of VC, a force of about 350, attacked LZ Betty. They killed seven U.S. soldiers and wounded thirty-five, and left behind fourteen bodies of their own they could not carry away. The attack lasted one hour and fifteen minutes.

We just stayed on the chopper pad the whole time. It was ugly. The perimeter machine guns were turned around firing into the compound. With everybody running around I didn’t know who to shoot at. If I opened fire I’d draw fire from both sides no matter who I was aiming at. I didn’t want to make a mistake and shoot an American or a South Vietnamese soldier either. I told my guys not to shoot at anybody unless it was point blank at an enemy soldier. Hell, one of my guy’s ammo clips that did not fit his rifle.

They were blowing up helicopters, so we stayed with our chopper to guard it. In a little while a lieutenant come out and asked if any enemy had been up on the helicopter, and when we said no he and his crew jumped on it and took off. Looking back we should have got on with them. Instead we stayed the whole night on the pad and caught a ride out the next morning to Sherry.

LZ Sandy

I was at LZ Sherry only a few days when the battery commander asked me, he was looking at my papers and he said, “We have a gun on loan up at LZ Sandy and I have to send one of you new guys up there. You’ve got more time in grade than the two others you came in with, so I am going to ask you first. Down here we’ve got it good, we’ve got good water, we’ve got good wire. Up there they’ve got bad food, bad wire, and they get hit a lot. It’s your choice.”

I was thinking, It’s only a matter of time before I get killed. My brother had got shot up and I knew at least eight guys from back home who got shot up. I said, “I’ve already seen this place, I’m ready to go.”

He said, “I knew you would do it.”

My trouble was I volunteered for too many things. I stayed up there at Sandy a long time, maybe five or six months. Our gun was on loan up there from Sherry to shoot illumination and counter mortar, things our 105 mm howitzer could do better than their big eight inch and 175 mm guns. We also helped out on fire missions for the infantry: the 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, 1/50th Mechanized Infantry, and we shot a lot for the ARVNs. The 1st and 2nd Cavalry, we worked a lot with those guys too. We were busy.

The howitzer on loan to Sandy was Gun 3, the howitzer that had taken a direct mortar hit the previous summer resulting in the death of Howie Pyle.


One night while we’re shooting illumination a mortar round came in, you could hear it leave the tube, and it landed short in the wire. When I saw it was a short round I gave my whole crew orders to get to the gun to shoot counter mortar. We were set up for illumination so the tube was cranked way up in the air. John Walker was already at the gun and cranking it down. A second mortar hit close to our hooch. I grabbed my flack vest and as I’m putting on my helmet another mortar went off at the gun. I saw the flash but did not hear it explode. It was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat. Everything went into slow motion and started spinning around. I seen blood and I’m going up and over backwards. They told me later a fourth mortar burst in the air and blew me back down to the ground. The First Sergeant found me wandering around the battery covered in blood while the mortars are still falling.

I took a piece of shrapnel in my shoulder and a sand blast in the face. I was like – lucky. Duncan got wounded worse than me in that third mortar blast at the gun. He ended up paralyzed. It was a miracle we both lived through it.

Years later a piece of shrapnel he did not know he had brought home with him worked its way out of Ernie’s back near his spine.

Rubber Legs Rubber Legs

That’s Rubber Legs, Gary Duncan’s cat. It was a little crippled. She got shrapnel in her one night trying to follow me out to the howitzer, and after that she would loose her rear end when she walked. After awhile she couldn’t walk at all, couldn’t eat and couldn’t drink and was really miserable, so I had to put her down. I had to shoot her.

Corporal Peppard

We got hit really bad one night and the next morning I was sleeping on a cot and this guy came in and said, “Man, get up. I come all the way out here to see you.”

I said, “Who are you?”

“I’m George Peppard.”

I said, “Well, I’m Ernie Rich and leave me the hell alone.”

“You don’t know me?”

“No, I don’t know you.”

He said, “Did you ever see The Blue Max?”

“No. They said it was a good movie, but I never got a chance to see it.”

“Well I was in it. You ever see The Carpet Baggers?”

“Nah, I didn’t see that one either.”

He said, “They told me not to come out here to Sandy but I come out anyway. I was in the Marine Corp myself and I’ve been shot at before over here.”

I said, “Really!” I had a lot of respect for him then. He was a super nice guy and it was really big of him to come out. His chopper took fire coming into Sandy, and when he left.

Peppard enlisted in the United States Marine Corps July 8, 1946 and rose to the rank of corporal in the 10th Marines, leaving the Corps in January 1948.

Corporal George Peppard
Corporal George Peppard


The VC had killed his wife and his son. All he had left was his daughter, and the two of them sold trinkets out of a suitcase for a living. I taught him English and gave him cigarettes to smoke. He said he was my father, and I said Okay I accepted him as my father. He was a super nice guy and wanted to come back to the states with me. He would tell us anything that would help us. He gave me all kinds of stuff: a hand carved ivory pipe with a dragon’s head. It got broken when I shipped it home and I wish I had saved it and repaired it instead of throwing it away. He basically adopted me as a son and I got to know his daughter a little.

I got grief from the guys for teaching him and his daughter English. “You’re teaching the enemy.” Or they said I just wanted to get into her pants. None of that was true; they were friends.

When I left Sandy to go to Sherry I lost contact with them.

Papa-san and his daughter
Papa-san and his daughter Lin

George Buck – B Battery XO – Part Seven

All About Defense

From his eight months in the field, in isolated and vulnerable locations, Lieutenant Buck learned that half the battle of staying alive was being smart about his perimeter. Kill-at-a-Distance started with keeping the enemy on the other side of the wire.

Four months as XO at LZ Sherry and Colonel Crosby brought me back to battalion headquarters at Phan Rang as assistant S2, the department that handles intelligence duties for the battalion. Then he also made me the acting S2, which is the top battalion intelligence officer and a captain slot, because he had no one else at the time. In the morning briefing for Colonel Crosby I would go over the situation reports that came in overnight and anything that went on in the batteries or at the Phan Rang Air Base.

One of the first things I noticed was the porous Phan Rang Airbase perimeter. When I say the perimeter was porous I swear that I could sneak through the wire and get inside almost anywhere, especially in the remote areas of the airbase. Why we never got attacked always surprised me. By now I was a perimeter schizo and suggested we provide some guidance to the airbase on beefing up security. This is how I got into flying the Phan Rang perimeters looking for enemy activity. I hooked up with an Army captain who was a fixed wing pilot and every day around lunch time we flew around looking for enemy activity.

First Lieutenant Buck and his pilot
First Lieutenant Buck and his pilot

Flying made me a bit nervous, with good reason. Earlier on a helicopter assault against an NVA force the rotor of my chopper caught the top of a pine tree and down we went right on top of the enemy position. I jumped out and ran up the hill, which I realized was the wrong direction when I saw dead NVA on the ground. Down the hill I found friendlies, along with lots of casualties. On another occasion I was on a twin engine C-123 transport plane out of Phan Thiet with a unit of Australian Special Forces and both engines failed within minutes of take off. The plane glided silently in a big U turn over the South China Sea and crash landed back at Phan Thiet. A third time I had a chopper loose its engine high in the air and start to drop like a rock. It went into auto rotate to slow our decent and keep from killing everyone on board.

I felt I was running out of luck with flying and here I was now in a little single engine L19 Bird Dog surrounded by F4 Phantom jets launching out in front of us and landing behind us. When landing you had to immediately turn off the runway onto the grass to avoid being run over by a Phantom or a Super Sabre that was just seconds behind you. It was a bit nerve wracking.

There is a principle in aviation that large jets and small planes do not mix. The back blast of a jet engine can flip a small plane on the ground or blow it out of the air.

Call It A Draw

When we got up in the air we would fly the perimeter, along the coastal plain and up into the foothills. The L19 had two white phosphorus rockets which we could shoot to mark a target, and then the captain would call his Air Force buddies to drop any bombs they might have left over from a mission.

The wing rockets had no targeting system so the pilot had to go into a power dive and aim the nose of the plane at the target and let the rockets fly. On these power dives I had breathing problems and frankly they scared the crap out of me. But the pilot loved them and sometimes he would throw in a reverse barrel roll while he was at it. Usually on these missions we did nothing more than scare some Viet Cong, except when a jet had some bombs left over and needed to drop them. However I liked saving the bombs for bunker complexes in the hills around the air base.

On one flight I saw VC swimming in a salt pond called Womb Lake. When they heard our plane throttle down they went stationary in the lake so that their heads looked like stumps. The captain couldn’t find any Air Force jets with spare bombs so we decided to fire our two white phosphorus rockets at them just to let them know they were spotted. The captain took the L19 up higher and went into a power dive straight at Womb Lake and the VC, who now were out of the water and scattering. 

As we launched our rockets the VC shot back at us with their rifles. At the bottom of the dive you are only a few hundred feet off the ground, and as you start back up you are not going that fast and are vulnerable, but we never got hit. Final tally: VC zero, good guys zero.

High over Womb Lake with empty rocket tubes
High over Womb Lake with empty rocket tubes

A Great Way To End

It never dawned on me at the time but I was the only lieutenant on the battalion staff. The captain who flew the L19 was a really nice guy and the only person at Phan Rang who was close to my rank. We became friends and he was the only one I can say that about for my entire tour. I was always alone – as a Duster platoon leader, or as a forward observer with troops I’d be with for a few days and never see again, or even at Sherry when I was mostly out on airmobile hip shoots. Fortunately I had no problem meeting people and getting acquainted, but it was still a lonely one year period.

My pilot buddy had a fiancé who was a nurse at Cam Rahn Bay. One weekend she came over to see him and brought her best friend with her to be my date. She was a nurse too and a first lieutenant like me. My own fiancé had dumped me back in the summer, so I was free and clear. The four of us went up to the Phan Rang Officers Club for dinner. I was more nervous than being in a firefight, I was so out of touch with how to act around a nice lady. We had a lot of laughs and a really good time. My only regret was I would be leaving in a week and there would be no opportunity for a follow up date. This was a great way to end a harrowing year of many ups and downs. It broke the bondage of isolation and I felt a sense of renewal.

Looking Back

I can’t think of a more unscripted and decentralized job in Vietnam than being a Duster lieutenant. We were platoon leaders, but our crews were spread out and rarely together, so we had to be with the crews we could assist the most. As my two Dusters moved from mission to mission I had to improvise, since I had never been trained in Dusters and the battalion span of control was far too dispersed for anyone to supervise my actions. My crews became totally self sufficient; they operated on their own and coordinated seamlessly with other crews.

I recently spoke to the chaplain who had come out for the memorial service for Acosta and Donovan, the two men blown up in my jeep on Highway 19. He was a young lieutenant too at that time. He traveled all over II Corp visiting Duster crews and conducting services for the troops, but most of these travels were either by himself or with someone from the battery. It was difficult to get any other battalion officer to come out to the field to make visits, “show the flag”, and give the troops some love. At least that was my impression, since the only battalion person I ever met was the chaplain. It seemed to me that they were concerned about getting killed or wounded, since Dusters and Quad-50s were prime targets and routinely took heavy casualties. Maybe this independence was a blessing in disguise, because we had no choice but to survive on our own.

I will say this, those four months in Dusters shaped my thinking and behavior as a junior combat officer. I became a perfect fit for my next assignment to non-U.S. forces as an FO and advisor. I had the combat experience, I was used to being on my own, and I had learned to improvise and execute my own plans the way I saw fit. This also served me well as B Battery XO in the 5/27, especially on hip shoots which were lot like Duster missions and seemed like a natural way to run an air mobile operation. Move, shoot and communicate.