A Wonderful Place
June of 1970 I am back in Vietnam. I get in country at Tan Son Nhut Airbase outside Saigon, where I am assigned to the First Field Force Provisional Artillery Group headquartered in Dalat.
The (First Field) Force Artillery Headquarters controlled three subordinate Artillery Groups, with a total strength of ten Field Artillery Battalions. These were the 41st Artillery Group, headquartered at Phu Cat, north of Qui Nhon; the 52nd Artillery Group, at Pleiku in the Central Highlands; and the First Field Force Vietnam Provisional Artillery Group, Dalat. Force Artillery Headquarters was in Phan Rang. From: Artillery Review, August 25, 1971
The Prov Group had such a general name because it was among the many temporary units in Vietnam not given a permanent unit name. At the time the 5/27 was one of four or five battalions assigned to this Prov Group.
So my next stop was Dalat. It was a beautiful place high up in the mountains, a university town. It had apparently been hit during TET but by this time all the damage was swept aside and it was a rather peaceful place. I went into Prov Group headquarters with the expectation that I would get some sort of a battalion or group staff job, since I had already commanded two batteries. I knew I was going to graduate school when I finished, so I thought, Well this would be a great place for a staff job, and maybe I could read at night and get ready for graduate school.
I go into Prov Group headquarters and the group commander Colonel Tuck says, “I got just the job for you. I’ve got this wonderful firebase down near Phan Thiet.”
Of course I knew Phan Thiet and said to myself, Man, I been there.
Colonel Tuck said, “It’s a wonderful place; it’s called LZ Sherry and I’d like you to take command of it.”
I said, “But sir, I’ve already commanded two artillery batteries. I’m sure there are others who would like to have a battery command. I’d like to be a G1.” (personnel officer)
He said, “No. LZ Sherry is an isolated base, it’s all by itself. You’re far away from battalion headquarters. You’re far away from everybody. I need a strong, experienced officer to go down there to take command. What do you say?”
I said, “I’d really like to be a staff officer.”
He said, “Let’s do this. You and I are going to fly down to Sherry tomorrow. You take a look at it, meet the outgoing battery commander, and then see what you have to say.”
The flight down to Sherry as I recall was well over an hour. (about 90 air miles south) On the way down I’m thinking to myself, Here I am a captain telling a full colonel I don’t want to take command of what he thinks is the greatest firebase he has. I think I better change my attitude here.
We landed on that little landing pad beside the firebase, and I was astounded at LZ Sherry. I had never seen anything like it compared to the firebases we had when I was with the First Cav. We’d throw them up overnight, string some barbed wire, dig trenches, put up a few sandbags, and that was it. But this place was a sophisticated firebase. The rows of concertina, the guard towers. The killer was the full length concrete basketball court. When I saw that I thought, Oh my god, what is this place?
The basketball court would make the Artillery Review two months later.
Whatever it was, I had already made up my mind I was not going to tell this O-6 commander that I did not want his firebase. I told him, “This is just wonderful. It exceeds anything I expected. I’d be happy … I’d be honored to take this unit.”
The outgoing battery commander, Captain Chuck Heindrichs, was a West Point classmate of mine. Even though we were classmates I did not know him. After that initial two hour visit I never met Captain Heindrichs again, and I never saw the Prov Group commander again the whole time I was at Sherry. He never visited, and I know I never went back to Dalat. The next time I saw Colonel Tuck was at a football game at West Point when I was on the faculty.
I think the colonel let me go back to Dalat to pick up my bags, but that was it. After I got my bags at Dalat now I had to go to Phan Rang to meet my battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Tucker (not to be confused with the Prov Group commander Colonel Tuck). He apparently had no say in the matter, or had looked at my record and said OK.
A Logical Question
This being 1970 the U.S. had already determined to get out of Vietnam. Vietnamization was going on, and we were in the throes of disengaging. In light of this, when I was getting my initial orders, I asked Lt. Col. Tucker what our mission was at Sherry. He told me number one was to stay in contact with the engineers working on Highway 1, and fire in support of them when they needed help. Number two, occasionally support armored operations in the vicinity. But the most important thing to keep foremost in mind was, Don’t get anybody killed. He said, “Make sure you have no casualties because we’re getting out of this war and politically we can’t stand casualties.”
I said to him in my naïve way, a captain talking to a lieutenant colonel, “So basically we have this very sophisticated firebase out in the middle of nowhere, and our primary mission is to take care of ourselves. So what if we were just not there?”
That did not go over well. He dismissed me saying, “We’re there and we’re going to stay there. It’s important that we show presence.”
That preyed on my mind throughout the time I was at Sherry. Here we are in the middle of nowhere, we must have close to 150 people on this firebase who can’t go anywhere or do anything outside the wire. Our mission is to take care of ourselves. Something is wrong with this picture.
The whole time I was at Sherry they would never let me off the firebase, I think because it was the kind of place they always wanted the guy in charge to be there. I left Sherry once or twice to go to a meeting in Phan Rang, but they never let me spend the night. In fact one time it was getting late and I said, “Where am I going to spend the night?” No, no, no, you got to get back, we have to have a commander on the base. I never spent a single night away from Sherry from the time I arrived to the time I left.
During Captain DeFrancisco’s tenure at Sherry the firebase sustained continued mortar attacks and a nasty recoilless rifle attack from an NVA unit. These resulted in on-going casualties, but none of them fatal.