Monthly Archives: November 2015

In The Beginning

Fifty years ago on November 3, 1965 the boys of Battery B arrived in Cam Ranh Bay with the 5th Howitzer Battalion/27th Field Artillery.

The 5th Battalion had been activated just two years earlier on June 20, 1963 at Ft. Lewis, Washington. At first it was an empty battalion with just a headquarters staff, and under orders to form three 105 mm howitzer batteries of six guns each. B Battery came into existence sixteen months later on October 29, 1964. John Santini, assigned to the battery as a gun crewman, says of that first crew:

The original B battery was like a melting pot of all different people. We had our stragglers, but B battery was a STRAC unit (Strategic, Tough and Ready Around the Clock). We could do any mission the Army wanted of us.

B Battery gun crew on a field exercise, Ft. Lewis
First B Battery gun crew on a field exercise, Ft. Lewis 
Staff Sergeant Dabney First B Battery Chief of Smoke
Staff Sergeant Dabney
First B Battery Chief of Smoke 

At Sea

B Battery was barely a year old when the battalion left for Vietnam in early October 1965. The battalion was staffed at 512 personnel (27 officers, 3 warrant officers, and 482 enlisted), four short of an authorized headcount of 516. John Santini describes the departure.

From Ft. Lewis we got on busses for Sea-Tac airport in Seattle. Walking through the terminal we were in full combat gear, with our helmets and M-14 rifles. People stopped and looked at us, some of them applauded. We boarded a plane and went to Oakland, California. As we were getting off the plane every one of those stewardesses lined up at the door and gave each man getting off the airplane a kiss – whether he was black, white, Hispanic, or whatever he was – and they were crying their eyes out. It was heartbreaking.

At Oakland men and equipment loaded onto a troop transport ship, the USS J. C. Breckinridge, and departed shore on October 10. John Santini captures the events of the crossing.

Everything was on the ship, our gear, the guns, trucks, everything. I think we stayed in port for a couple days. Then we were off. We went underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, looked up and it was the most beautiful bridge in the world. We went out on the ocean, and the official record says it took 19 days. 

On board the ship we had to exercise on the deck until it got too hot. We did target practice with our M-14s out into the ocean to stay familiar with our weapons. And on the ship you had to work, you were given details. But I brown-nosed my way out of them. I would walk around and watch the Navy guys chipping away at the grey paint – chip it … paint it … chip it … paint it. That’s all they did: chip it and paint it.

I remember the good Navy food.

We used to go up on deck at nighttime and watch the waves. It was the scariest thing you’d ever want to see. Here you are a little ship in a gigantic ocean. You wouldn’t see a ship, nothing, for days. There was nothing out there. If that ship would have sank, you’d have died. 

Bill Volesky (left) and John Santini aboard the J. C. Breckinridge
Bill Volesky (left) and John Santini aboard the J. C. Breckinridge

We had classes from Captain Johnson. He had been to Vietnam before and that’s why he was our captain. He was telling us how to stay alive over there, he was telling us about what to expect. We had classes about respecting the Vietnamese. Don’t go out there and fuck everything that walks, their mothers and daughters, don’t do stuff like that. They’re human beings, not sluts and trash. They want you to respect the culture. They want you to go in there and do your job and obey your commands and treat people right. They gave everybody a little card that I kept. 

The Nine Rules for Vietnam

The ship broke down outside Hawaii, and it took two days for the swabbies to get it fixed. We never went into port there, you could see the island in the distance. Then we went on to Okinawa, where we stayed just one day. We were able to get off the ship and tour the city. From there we went to Vietnam.

The J. C. Breckenridge arrived at Cam Ranh Bay on November 3, 1965 but did not immediately touch shore.

We stayed outside port for two days. We were on the deck in our combat gear with live ammunition, still maybe 200 yards from the port. Some of us had the clips locked into our rifles, and they told us to remove them. They said, “As soon as you get on the ground, then put the clip in your gun.”

We left the boat on ramps, loaded the ammunition and equipment on five-ton trucks, and then hooked the guns behind the trucks. On our first day we joined the 101st Airborne Infantry at a rubber plantation off Highway 1 on our way up to Nha Trang. There we set the battery up and stayed for a little while.

First Fire Mission

We’re in Vietnam three weeks and it’s Thanksgiving day. We had our perimeter set up outside Nha Trang airport, we’re in combat mode, and we’re waiting around for orders.

Now everyone is bitching, because here it is Thanksgiving and we’re eating C-rations out of cans. Soon choppers landed and brought us a real Thanksgiving meal. We hardly started when a fire mission came in. A Special Forces unit was in trouble on a nearby mountain, they were pinned down. We started the mission before the sun went down with only a few rounds, but it went on for most of the night. That was our first combat mission, to support the 5th Special Forces on Thanksgiving of 1965.

The 5th Special Forces were the infamous Green Berets. Shortly after the 5th was activated for Vietnam in 1961, President John F. Kennedy personally authorized the distinctive green beret. The 5th SF became known for their unconventional warfare methods and were among the last to leave Vietnam.

The Proud Patch

Straight off the transport ship at Cam Ranh the battalion attached to the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Infantry Division. This meant the battalion acted as a combat arm of the 101st Airborne, and as such its guys wore the Screaming Eagle patch of the 101st.

101st Airborne “Screaming Eagle” Combat Patch
101st Airborne “Screaming Eagle” Combat Patch

During those early months in Vietnam John Santini says there was so much chaos nobody worried about a patch, even if you could find one. Shortly however it became a standard part of the 5th Battalion uniform.

First Gun Crew Accommodations
First Gun Crew Accommodations

In January of 1968 B Battery joined a newly formed taskforce whose nucleus was four rifle companies of the 3/506, a storied 101st airborne infantry battalion known as the Currahees: Cherokee for We Stand Alone. The unit history of Task Force 3-506 calls it “a commander’s dream,” because under its operational control were over two thousand men comprising the full complement of land, sea and air assault forces. TF 3-506 operated out of Phan Thiet with the dual mission to conduct short-notice airmobile deployment into four contiguous provinces, and rapid airborne assault anywhere in Vietnam. Bravo Battery was one of three artillery batteries belonging to TF 3-506. It occupied landing zones north of Phan Thiet, first briefly at LZ Judy during the 1968 TET offensive, and then permanently at LZ Sherry.

For its support of the 3/506 during TET of 1968, under the command of Captain George Moses, B Battery would be awarded the Valorous Unit Award, the second highest decoration that can be given an Army unit and the equivalent of the Silver Star. B Battery was the only unit of the 5th Battalion to win the Valorous Unit Award in Vietnam.

When the 3/506 Currahees departed Phan Thiet in December of 1969 their patch went with them. Today B Battery veterans of those years display the 101st Screaming Eagle on caps, vests, jackets, and anywhere someone is likely to see that proud patch.

* Special thanks to John Santini for his commentary and pictures, and to Jerry Berry for historical background on Task Force 3-506.

Ernie Rich – Gun Crew – Part Four

“Shaving Profile”

I have this weird beard, and my face got all infected from shaving and ingrown hairs. Doc, our battery medic, couldn’t do anything for me, so he sent me to the medics back in Phan Thiet. They said I shouldn’t shave for a month and gave me this “shaving profile” to take back to the First Sergeant. Top was usually a stickler for guys shaving, he even hated mustaches, but in my case he said he was fine with it for a month.

After a month Doc comes to me and says, “You know you have to shave that thing off now.”

After that I went to using an electric shaver and never had any more problems.


You’re Not Home Till You’re Home

Specialist 4 George Beedy had left LZ Sherry for good, and was on a flight out of Phan Rang Airbase for Cam Ranh Bay, where he would catch a commercial flight home. The plane out of Phan Rang flew into the side of a mountain in foul weather, killing everyone on board. The date: November 11, 1970. He was twenty-one years old, the twelfth and last fatality of the boys of Battery B.

George Beedy in sunglasses on far left Picture taken just before his death
George Beedy in sunglasses on far left
Picture taken just before his death

I remember George Beedy, a guy from Ohio like me. He was on Gun 1 if I am not mistaken. I did two hip shoots with him. He was a super nice guy. He was on a plane going home when he got killed. They told the plane it could fly at a certain altitude, but the mountain was higher and it flew into the side of the mountain. It took them two weeks to get the bodies out.

Phan Rang Airbase sat on the coast just a little above sea level, but to its immediate West were dense jungle-clad mountains, the highest of which rose to over a mile.

When I heard about Beedy I went to the captain and said I wanted to be in the detail that went to get his body. He said no, it was too risky, we would be taking chances we don’t ordinarily take. George was engaged to be married when he got back home. He showed me pictures of his girlfriend and everything.


I was supposed to be home on July 4th of 1971, but on 2nd I was still in the field at LZ Sherry, and the only ride I could get that day was a Chanook CH-47 that brought supplies in and out of the battery. It had the same crew chief that got dumped out of the chopper with us when it lost that ammo sling. About half way back to Phan Thiet we started taking fire from the ground. I think it was AK-47 fire. I could hear the rounds popping through the floor, going from the rear of the chopper up the middle to the front. A guy in the back of the chopper came running up front with the bullets coming through the floor right behind him. As he went past me I pulled him over to the side, and the bullets continued up to the cockpit and went right behind the pilot. The whole chopper just shook and I thought, Oh Jesus Christ, they just killed the pilot on the stick. I went to the front door and said, “You OK?”

He said, “I’m OK, but my ass is stinging like hell.” The bullets had hit the chicken plate he was sitting on (armor plating on the seat).

A bullet just grazed a hydraulic line right behind the pilot. The controls locked in position and the chopper went down and bounced on the ground. They patched the line with medical tape and were up on top putting in more hydraulic fluid when the NVA caught up with us and started shooting at the chopper again. We took off again but could not get any altitude. We were getting away, but oh man you could see a high hill coming up. I told that door gunner I hope he starts pulling up, I don’t know if we’re going to make it or not. I went to the cockpit and the pilot said, “I been pulling up ever since we left the ground and I don’t think we’re going to make it.” Then he said, “Do you know this area?”

I said, “Yeah, pretty much.”

He said, “Good. Because if we go down again you’re gonna have to get us out of here.”

He was trying to get over that hill to get to the ocean so he could ditch it if he had to. We made it over the hill but came so close we scrapped the brush going over it. Out over the ocean the door gunner and I inflated a raft, and the pilot even dropped the back cargo door for us to jump. By now there was smoke all through the chopper. It was just ugly.

Somehow we made it to the Phan Thiet airstrip. The pilot told them he was coming in, but they said he couldn’t because there were other aircraft landing. He said, “I’m all shot up and I’m coming in. Take it either way, I’m going to land or I’m going to crash.” We landed OK.

From there I took a little two-engine prop plane, a Caribou I think, out to Phan Rang. Phan Thiet had a little short runway, so to take off the Caribou had to put the brakes on, rev the hell out of the engines, and then take the brakes off. Soon as the pilot took the brakes off we went about ten feet and one of the engines stalled out. I thought, Oh man, you got to be kidding me. Well we took off anyway and I’m looking out the window and see the engine start to smoke and then catch on fire. You GOTTA be kidding me.

The pilot shut the engine off and put the plane into a little bit of a dive to put the fire out. He said no big deal we still got one engine left, and I said, “Yeah, that’s what’s worrying me.” We made it to Phan Rang Airbase on that one engine, and when the plane set down I was never so glad in all my life.