Monthly Archives: January 2016

Dick Graham – Gun Crew – Part Two


I left for Vietnam out of Oakland, California. We flew on a super DC 8 and everybody on the plane was either infantry or artillery. Our first stop was Hawaii. They let us off the plane, and I went into the bar there and met a couple friends and had a couple Mai-tai’s. The whole thing was kind of funny because prior to starting basic they had you fill out a questionnaire and you got an opportunity to select three places where you wanted to serve. I put Hawaii number one on my list. So I got my wish for a couple of hours anyway.

After Hawaii we stopped at Wake Island which was nothing. The next stop was the Philippines at Clark Air Force base. When we got off the plane I could see these oriental looking people walking around, and it really hit me where I was going. Up until then I kind of compartmentalized it in the back of my head. It was about a two hour flight from Clark to Vietnam. We landed at night at Ben Hoa outside Saigon, and I remember sticking my head out the door to this overwhelming smell of dead fish. I could see the artillery in the background and I thought, Oh my, what have I gotten myself into now?

We moved to a holding area and as we are doing this there’s a bunch of guys waiting to get on the plane to go home. They are cheering wildly and here we are just getting there. I remember getting on a bus and the windows had bars on them so people couldn’t throw shit in at you, a grenade of something. I remember being very leery of anyone who looked oriental at that point.

We got processed at Long Binh a few miles away, and from there I took a plane north to Nha Trang. I was there for a couple of days and ran into somebody from college and we had the opportunity to go swimming. From there we went to Phan Rang to battalion HQ, and from there I went out to LZ Betty at Phan Thiet. I’ll never forget the chopper ride from Betty out to Sherry. The chopper clipped along ten feet above the trees. They said we were not so much of a target when we were down so low and could not be shot at easily. By the time they saw you, you were past them.

I was on that chopper out to Sherry with a black guy from Mississippi. Three weeks after we got to Sherry he was on a mine sweep and hit a mine and it killed him. (Percy Gully – April 2, 1969 – along with Steve Sherlock.)

Caught In A Compromising Position

Dick arrived at Sherry in March of 1969, and immediately went on Gun 2, BAD NEWS, where Rik Groves was crew chief. Within weeks Guns 2 and its crew went on a mobile operation to Outpost Nora with one other howitzer. On May 17 when the round with a bad fuse from Gun 2 detonated over the other howitzer and killed two of its crew, Dick and his crew had rotated back to Sherry. He therefore helped to build the outpost, but was not present for the mishap.

Dick Graham at Outpost Nora
Dick Graham at Outpost Nora

I have a funny story from my time at Nora. When we moved there, the first thing we had to do was build the Fire Direction bunker and an ammo bunker, and then we could build our hooches. For quite awhile our latrine was just a hole we had off the side of the berm. I was down there sitting over the hole one day when all of a sudden a sniper started shooting at me. I’m scrambling up the side of the hill with my drawers down around my ankles, and the guys are laughing their asses off at me. They thought it was a riot.

Our perimeter defense at Nora were a bunch of Montagnards. They were there with their families. We would buy ice from them. When we first got there you got a pretty good size piece of ice for the equivalent of a buck. By the time I left you were getting one about a third the size for five bucks. They were good business people. And we had to be able to keep our beer cold after all! I remember we lived mostly on C-rations. They would fly in one hot meal a day. That was one thing about being in the artillery, you almost always got at least one hot meal a day. It was pretty quiet as far as I remember. We went there to support the infantry, but we did not have many fire missions to shoot, and I don’t recall any mortar attacks.

Just a couple months after I got to Sherry, sometime in May, I extended my tour 53 days so that when I got back to the States I’d get out of the Army right away. When you went back to the States if you had five months or less left on active duty they let you out. That was my goal, to get out of the Army ASAP! When I decided to extend my parents were just devastated. But it was pretty quiet when I decided to extend.

The quiet ended soon after Dick extended. The summer of 1969 saw a brutal level of attacks and casualties at LZ Sherry.

Loose One, Win One

 I had a girlfriend in college, we had been going together for at least a year, and in basic training at Ft. Jackson I got the dreaded Dear John letter. I took that really hard. It made me angry, and I was already angry. I was hurt, and at that point in my life I expressed it as anger.

When I got to Vietnam I corresponded with a high school buddy who had gone through ROTC and was an officer stationed in Maryland. Rick had met this girl Judy there, and somehow she got to be my pen pal. Judy was wonderful. She wrote me probably five letters a week. These were not just one or two pages, some of them were eight and nine pages long. It was a wonderful outlet for me to express my emotions and frustrations about the war that I did not want to share with my parents. She was a godsend. I lived for mail call. As I recall we had amazing mail service. Letters only took three or four days. As it turned out Rick and Judy got married a week after my wife and I got married.

Convoy Memories

Convoy to Phan Thiet Tommy Mulvihill at the wheel
Convoy to Phan Thiet
Tommy Mulvihill at the wheel

Going on convoys into Phan Thiet you always had to watch out for your wallet. The kids were begging for money and candy, but they also tried to steal your money. They would come along and try to pick your wallet out of your pocket. One trick was to cut a slit with a razor in your back pocket to get to your wallet. I always kept it in my breast pocket, growing up in New York I knew about this kind of stuff. I’m just grateful we did not have to worry about people blowing themselves up around us.

One time on a convoy back to Betty I got an opportunity to call home. They did that through a series of shortwave radio operators.

The Military Affiliate Radio Service, known as MARS, used phone-patch connections over shortwave radios to place personal calls to the States. The lines outside the MARS stations in rear areas were always long, and it often took forever to make a chain of connections to the other side of the globe. The calls were limited to five minutes, assuming all of the radio connections held that long.

When they rang my parents’ house, wouldn’t you know it, the line was busy.

Dick Graham – Gun Crew – Part One


Dick was one of the many college students drafted into Vietnam. They were years older than the typical draftee, and educated to resist the traditional ways of turning boys into men. Thus on every front they clashed with what was still the Old Army. Yet once in Vietnam, beneath their cynicism, resentment and contempt for the military, they did their jobs with dedication and often heroism.

Of the 2.6 million who served in Vietnam, 648,500 were drafted. Many thousands more “volunteered” in order to select a specialty or delay induction by a few months. In the years after Vietnam senior officers who witnessed the transition to the all-volunteer Army say that draftees brought a diversity of skills and creativity that they miss in today’s Army.

My father was a veteran of WWII and his father was a veteran of WWI. When I was in high school we talked a lot around the dinner table about the Vietnam war, whether it was worthwhile or not. In our discussions I was not buying the domino theory.

I went to Ohio University in Athens and when the time got closer to when I was going to get drafted I started looking at my options. Not showing up for the draft and going to jail was not an option for me. I tried to get into the reserves, but you had to know somebody. You had to be sort of privileged, so that was not an option for me either. I had an aunt who lived in New Hampshire who wanted me to go to Canada; she had a place there I could go to. I considered it, but I did not like the idea of not being able to come back to the United States and visit my family.

January of 1968, my senior year in college, the draft board classified me 1-A (available for military service). Then I got a notice to take my written test. My draft board was in Pittsburgh and I was in Ohio, so they had to arrange for me to take the test in Ohio, which I did. I don’t think you had to score very high on it because I met people in the service who were probably intellectually disabled. A guy I bunked with in basic was from Harlem and he just had a terrible time and his hygiene was awful. I kept telling him, Why don’t you go AWOL?, and he finally did. Also, a guy I shared a hooch with when I first got to LZ Sherry I thought was intellectually disabled. He really liked the ladies. He had a collection of women’s panties in our hooch. It was just a rumor, but when he tried to re-up they would not take him.

After I took my written test, I got a letter to take my physical, which I was able to postpone until I could graduate. I got my degree in business but I couldn’t get a job because I was 1-A, nobody wanted to hire me knowing that I would be drafted. I got a job working part time at a department store. Then I took my physical, which I though I had a chance of not passing because I was born with a lazy eye. My left eye is only about 20/400 and cannot be corrected any better than that. I guess they figured you only needed one eye to shoot.

I got my draft notice in September telling me to report to Pittsburgh. A friend of mine from high school and college was supposed to go the same day I was, but he didn’t show up and went to prison instead. He turned out Okay. At one point he was a writer for the Boston Globe.

There were just twelve of us drafted in Pittsburgh that day. I always thought the Marines were all volunteer, but half the people that showed up that day went to the Marines. They had us count off 1 – 2 – 1 – 2, and the 1s went to the Army and the 2s went to the Marines. I was a 1; I caught a break. I truly think the reason I showed up in Pittsburgh that day came down to duty, not only to country but duty to my family.

Attitude Issues

I did basic training at Fort Jackson just outside of Columbia, South Carolina. The physical training part of basic training was always easy for me. I did not struggle with any of that. In fact, despite my lazy eye and the fact I had never handled a weapon before, I had the highest score in my company for rifle marksmanship.

It was the ridiculous stuff I couldn’t take. They had what they called zero week before training started when they gathered the recruits that would make up the company. I was walking down the street not paying any attention and failed to salute the company commander. They made me climb up a tree and say, “Tweet, tweet, I am a shit bird” for an hour. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was pissed as hell. Looking back on it they needed to get my attention because I wasn’t buying all the stuff they were feeding us.

Our drill sergeant was just an ignorant Redneck as far as I was concerned and I had no respect for him at all. For the first couple of weeks when we ate our meals, we had to sit our asses on the front two inches of the chair, hold our tray in one hand, and eat with the other hand. You couldn’t cut your food. Finally the mess sergeant complained about it because we were not eating.

Every evening after supper for a couple of weeks, our company commander took all the college graduates outside his quarters and put us into the front leaning rest position (the up position of a push up). Then he’d walk back and forth telling us about going to Officer Candidate School. I wasn’t buying it. It was like, I want to be like you? Really?

In AIT artillery training at Ft. Sill we had quite a few college graduates, and a reserve unit from Missoula, Montana. Most of them had attitudes like mine. We never marched in military style, we always just walked along. Because of our general poor attitude we never had an overnight pass the whole time I was there. I didn’t mind, as I thought Lawton, Oklahoma was the arm pit of the world anyway.

Through Basic and AIT training I really struggled with respecting my commanding officers. The Army teaches you that you’re supposed to respect the rank, but the way I was brought up you respect the person and how they conduct themselves. Some of the old time sergeants I could respect, but it was the young officers and drill sergeants I had a problem with who couldn’t speak proper English. So call me an intellectual snob. My outlook did not get any better in Vietnam.

My orders for Vietnam came right after AIT, shipping me out through Oakland, California. I got I think 17 days leave prior to that. During that time I did a lot of soul searching because I was really thinking I was not coming back from this thing alive. I also partied a lot. I went out to SF a couple days early to party on Fisherman’s Warf. And I checked out Haight Ashbury. And I went to a Carol Doda review, a famous thing back then.

Carol Ann Doda was one of the first topless dancers of her era, gaining international attention when she danced topless at the Condor Club in 1964. She enhanced her fame when she went from a bust size 34 to a siliconed 44, thereafter known as “Doda’s Twin 44s” and “The New Twin Peaks of San Francisco.” There was hardly a college age male in the country who was not familiar with the name Carol Doda. She passed away in 2015 at the age of 77.

Tony Bongi – Gun Crewman – Part Two


 Gun 2, BAD NEWS, and Gun 5, BIG BULLET, were on a mobile operation at Outpost Nora, a barren hilltop north of Sherry. The evening of May 17, 1969, while shooting a fire mission in support of the infantry, a round with a bad fuse leaving the barrel of BAD NEWS exploded over nearby BIG BULLET, killing Lloyd Handshumaker and James Johnson. Three crewmen on BAD NEWS were also wounded: Tony Bongi, Tommy Mulvihill and Leroy Leggett.

(From Left) Bongi, Mulvihill, Leggett At Nora Before Mishap Picture courtesy Tommy Mulvihill
At Nora before mishap(From Left) Bongi, Mulvihill, Leggett     Picture courtesy Tommy Mulvihill

I was in Vietnam just two months. It was a nighttime fire mission and I remember I was just in my shorts and combat boots. There was a big explosion, a huge white flash at the gun barrel. It blew me into a big pile of spent canisters behind the gun. I was fumbling around in those canisters trying to get out, but I couldn’t because they were sliding all over the place, and I finally got down to the ground and got up and went to my hooch for my rifle. I did not know what had happened. I thought maybe a sapper had got through the wire and threw a satchel charge or it was a mortar hit. After we tended to the wounded I heard Doc yelling, “Anybody else hit? Check yourself over.” I checked myself and on my right leg there were all these cuts and I thought, holy crap. I took a cloth and wiped it down and thought it was from when I hit the canisters.

Gun 2 BAD NEWS with brass canisters behind
Gun 2 BAD NEWS at Nora with brass canisters behind

The guys who were not wounded severely had to go down the hill outside the wire to secure a perimeter for the Medevac coming in. I was behind Mulvihill going down the hill and it was dark. He was wounded at the time I believe. We got down there and made a perimeter up against this tall grass. My rifle was on fully automatic, man, any little thing out there I was so keyed up I would have been blasting away, because we still didn’t know what that explosion was from and our little outpost could be overrun no problem. I’m a Catholic and this was one of those days when I said, Help me, God. The first Medevac came in and took off with the guys who were wounded, then another one came in to pick up the dead, Johnson and Handshumaker

After we got everybody Medevac’d out we went back up the hill, and we’re standing around talking all us guys with our M-16s and our flack jackets on, and you’re still trembling. Somebody said to me, I don’t know who it was, said, “Hey Bong, you’re bleeding, it’s going down your leg.”

I said, “That was from when I hit the canisters.”

He said, “No, it’s from the back of your leg.”

That’s when I pulled my shorts up and felt it. Doc came over to check it out and said, Tomorrow you’re going into Phan Thiet. They came and picked me up the next day to the hospital. I remember them freezing my right hip and then cutting it open. They pulled out a piece of shrapnel, not a big piece, sewed me back up, and said I could go back. They said, “Where are you from?”

I remember this, I said, “I’m from LZ Sherry.”

“LZ Sherry! Holy Christ. That’s a bad ass place.”

I said, “Well, you don’t want to go there.”

A coupe of weeks later I wrote home to my parents. I did not say anything about being wounded, just that I was OK, how many days I had left, stuff like that. A week and a half later I got a letter from my Mom saying that the Army had sent her and Dad a telegram saying that I had gotten wounded in the right hip and left leg. I said to myself, Oh my God, and she did not hear from me for a couple weeks. How the hell would that make you feel? Then I had to write her back and tell her I’m Okay and the Good Lord is taking care of me.

Telegram to Tony's parents
Telegram to Tony’s parents

Note the telegram incorrectly states their son was wounded in the left leg, versus his right, an official error Tony continually works to correct at his VA hospital.

Thinking about it weeks later, when we set that gun up the metal stakes we put in the ground to build the parapet we had to pound down lower on one side because we were set up on a hill and would be firing down the hill. Thinking about it afterward I though we hit one of those stakes with a point detonating fuse. But the guys when we got together said, No, because you would have seen the blown out parapet. It was years later that Mulvihill told me it was a bad fuse.

That flash! I still see that flash. In my career as a fireman I’ve seen big flashes, like when electric lines come down and hit a car, and that always takes me back to Nam.

August 12

The date sticks in the memory of every guy who was there – the day two mortar attacks, one in the early morning and one late at night, killed two howitzer crewmen. Tony remembers the second attack that killed Howie Pyle on Gun 3.

I was still on Gun 4 with Tommy Mulvihill. When the explosion happened you could tell Gun 3 got hit and we ran over there. Tommy was the first one there along with a couple of us. The mortar must have hit right at the gun because the tires were flat and it was tipped to the side a little. There was a bunch of other guys there, all kinds of moaning and hollering and screaming and Howie was laying there gasping. Crap! One guy had a piece of shrapnel hit him in the left side under his armpit, it took that whole area right out of there, just gone. It was all horrifying to see – you’re 18, 19 years old and you’re seeing this shit. How do you come out of that?

The medic then told us all, “Come on guys we still got a fire mission to shoot, get back to your guns.” We had to go back to our gun to continue the fire mission, shoot illumination rounds, and we shot some beehive rounds out there worried about a ground attack. So we couldn’t really help, we had a limited number of guys. Mounting casualties over the prior two months had severely depleted the battery.

Christmas 1969
Christmas Star

We put up a star on top of the FDC bunker with lights one of the guys got from home. A cease fire came down for Christmas, but somebody forgot to tell the enemy there was a ceasefire. Let me tell you they zeroed in on that lit up star with the mortars that night. They clamped on that sucker. Still it was a merry Christmas because nobody got hurt that night.

The best part was a Christmas package from Andy Kach. Andy and I became pretty good friends. When he left I was a little depressed because he was a good guy. He said, “Tony, when I get home I’m going to send you a bottle.” Well son of a bitch at Christmas time I got this package from Andy and we opened it up and it was a bottle of Seagram’s. We sat around and toasted Andy. He wasn’t even twenty-one, he couldn’t buy the bottle, he had to get his dad to buy it.

Tony on left with pipe and Seagram’s
Tony on left with pipe and Seagram’s

Tony Bongi – Gun Crewman – Part One

Into the Army

I got my draft notice at the end of 1967. I did not enlist. Guys from my area, the town of Iron River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, went to Milwaukee for physicals. A taxi picked me up and took me to a town to the east, Channing, and there was a railroad depot there. They ran passenger service down to Wisconsin. We got on that train to Milwaukee. There they picked us up on buses and took us to a barracks kind of building. The next day we had our physicals and of course the guy said, “Oh no, you’re in good shape.” We came home on the same train and a taxi was there to take us home.

When I got my notice to report for duty I did the same thing, a taxi picked me up from my house. On the way to the train station in Channing we picked up another guy in Crystal Falls and another guy in Sagola. The Channing station was due to be closed, and we were the last train out of there.

The train took me to Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic. I remember the barracks were these old wood buildings with cracks showing through in the walls, so that a sand storm came through and laid that shit all over the floor, which we had to clean up. In there we had a coal burning stove for heat. We had to stoke the stove with coal so we could stay warm in there, and you had to do a fire watch every night. It was always rainy and there was always moisture in the air. Holy Christ, every frickin’ day.

We would do our calisthenics every day, and when we went for lunch at the door of the chow line there was a chin up bar. When the line went through you had to jump up on it and do I believe twenty pull-ups. I was a little bit chunky when I went into the Army and at first I could barely do it. At first it was tough on everybody, but then we got in pretty good shape after three or four weeks.

You went through the chow line and they had chicken and pork chops and mashed potatoes. I was starving and I’m walking through the line and packing my tray up. I get to the end and there’s a drill sergeant standing there. He looks at me and he looks at my tray and he says, “Hey, fatty, where you goin’ with all that food?”

I say, “I’m gonna eat it.”

“No you’re not,” he says. “Put it down and go back through the line.

Son of a bitch, I have to go back through the line and get half of what I had the first time.

The Advantages of Being a Yooper

After I graduated from basic I went to Ft. Sill for artillery training. Where we were stationed was called Kelly Hill. I don’t know how I got into artillery. Your first week at basic you have all kinds of testing, so I guess that’s what got me into artillery.

They had a baseball team there and they asked if anyone wanted to play on the team. I played at home so I raised my hand. They took me for a tryout and afterwards said, Okay, you’re on the team.

And then one day at formation they said, anybody here know anything about pistols. From living up here in the U.P. you did all that stuff. We were shooting guns when we were six years old. I raised my hand and they said, come with me. There were a few other guys too. We shot the Colt 1911, the big. 45 caliber service pistol, but these were not .45s; they were .22 target pistols built on the same frame that went into combat as a .45. I got on the shooting team with these .22 pistols and we shot in competition around the area.

I was also on a burial detail. We went all over the country to bury old soldiers, from WWI, WWII and Korea. This one time we drove down to Florida and we went into this old cemetery, with vines and moss hanging all over the place. We also shot the seven gun salute.

I also became the Sergeant Major’s jeep driver. They asked us, Can anyone drive a jeep in rough weather? Where I came from everybody had a four wheel drive vehicle. I raised my hand and became his driver.

I still had to go to classes and all the training exercises, but I didn’t have any details like KP because I had these other activities and had to be at Sergeant Major’s beck and call whenever he wanted to go somewhere. One day we were headed out to the shooting range. It had rained the day before. We were in a flat and sandy soil muddy area. He wanted to go out into the field, but I said, “Sarge, it’s pretty muddy out there.”

“You can get out there,” he said, “you got a four wheel drive jeep.”

I went into the field and we got bogged down. I was spinning the back tires and it was throwing mud all over the place. There were two levers in the jeep, a shorter one to engage the four wheel drive, and the taller one would put it in either high gear or low gear. I reached over and pushed the small lever forward and pulled the big lever back, which put me into four wheel drive in low gear. When the front end engaged it threw mud all over the Sergeant Major’s whole right side as we took off. We got out of the field, and got out of the jeep, and he was cleaning off his arm and shoulder and leg. I went over by him and said, “You okay?”

He said, “That was pretty good driving. Where you from, boy?”

I said, “The Upper Peninsula of Michigan.”

He said, “Where the hell is that?” and walked away.

Every Day in Vietnam

I shipped to Vietnam from Ft. Lewis, Washington on a commercial flight that stopped in Anchorage Alaska, then at a big airport in Japan where we flew by Mt. Fuji, then into Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam – the hell hole.

From Phan Thiet they drove three of us out in a deuce-and-a-half truck. Right inside the main gate of this firebase I saw this big sign with the mortar fins and said to the driver, “What the hell is that?”

He said, “LZ Sherry.”

Picture courtesy Andy Kach
Picture courtesy Andy Kach

I wasn’t there three days when we got mortared. You talk about scared shitless. Every day that I was in Vietnam I was scared shitless. There were only short times when you got it off your mind, like in Mulvihill’s hooch drinking beer. But sometime during every day you were reminded and every day something scared you, either from a mortar attack or a sniper shot. When you got snipered at the bullet would whiz by you and hit something. When you first got there you didn’t know what it was and said, “What the hell was that?” and one of the guys would say, Get down, get down. That’s how new guys got shot, standing around asking, What the hell was that? Or something said in morning formation at the XO’s hooch, like there’s lots of movement to the northwest so be ready for an attack. An then there you go, you were scared. Then they put up that tall radar tower when I was there, and I thought holy Christ that’s attractive to the enemy, they’ll zero in on that right away.

Tony unpacking ammo on Gun 4
Tony unpacking ammo on Gun 4

Then there was the mine sweeping on convoys, which Mulvihill and I usually did together. He would have the mine sweeper out in front with me following. When he picked up a signal he’d go round and round the spot, and at the strongest point he laid the sweeper down lightly on the sand, and when he picked it back up it left a ring. Then the guys would go in with a knife on either side to try to find it. One time Tommy said to me, “Here, Bong, hold my gun, I got to go up there and probe.” He found it, and we all backed off, and they blew it up, but talk about being scared.