The Highest Lowest
I graduated from Officer Candidate School a 2nd lieutenant in 1969. My first assignment was at Ft. Sill in a Pershing Missile training battery. As a training officer I taught M60 machine gun, M79 grenade launcher, M72 LAW (light anti-tank weapon, shoulder fired) – all that fun stuff.
When I got orders for Vietnam I had no tube artillery experience at all. So I signed up for a gunnery refresher course at Ft. Still. Before I could begin training the battery commander called me in said, “How come the only lieutenant in our whole battalion who is not a member of the AUSA wants to take this course?” (The Association of the United States Army is its professional association.)
I said, “I understand.” So I sent my $25 into the AUSA and got my gunnery course.
I was made a 1st lieutenant on my one year anniversary of graduating from OCS, which would have been in July of 1970, the same month I arrived in Vietnam
When I got to Vietnam I was assigned to First Field Force artillery in Phan Rang, and of course the question then was where you were going from there. At that point I still had not figured out all this artillery stuff. I was terrible at math, my worst subject ever. But they had a gunnery course in Phan Rang, about a week long, for all the new lieutenants plus the fire direction enlisted guys.
A funny story. So I took this course, and I’m a quietly competitive guy, and said to myself: I’m going to get the high grade. You got a Zippo lighter with your name, the battalion crest and High Scorer in Class engraved on it. The night before the test I took all the guys out and got them roaring drunk. And I got roaring drunk too, but I knew that I could function drunk and I didn’t think they could. And I was right. I got the highest score on the test, which I was told was the lowest highest score in the history of the course. I just remember the gunnery instructor shaking his head at all of us during the test – our breaths must have smelt awful. I got my lighter.
They sent me up to Dalat to meet Colonel Richard Tuck, the Prov Group commander, because being the academician that he was, he wanted the guy who had the highest score. I don’t think he knew it was the lowest ever.
I couldn’t believe the place existed…after a Huey ride from the heat in Phan Rang, Dalat was cool, lush and totally un-Vietnamese. It didn’t even smell like a Vietnamese city. It was the Eurasian half French and half Vietnamese girls that caught my eye. Some of them were stunners, dressed to the teeth just walking around. There were great French restaurants. And the first thing I was told when I got there was don’t worry about the VC because this place is off limits for both sides in the war.
Colonel Tuck had been a French professor at West Point, but as an artillery officer he had somehow been sent to Vietnam to get combat experience on his resume. He made Dalat his headquarters because it was so French and had the great restaurants. He was a great guy, very classical almost 19th century in his approach. But he cared deeply about his men. I remember when I first met him he had someone take a black and white polaroid picture of the two of us. I think he did that with all of his officers so he could remember them. He sent me a copy afterwards. He spoke in what sounded to my untrained Midwestern ear as an upper crust, up-Eastern accent. I never met anyone else like him in the Army. He had this strange refined existence in the middle of a war in a beautiful mountain city that seemed totally oblivious to the destruction raging around it. He never married. I exchanged Christmas cards with him for years afterward, until his death in 2002.
Colonel Tuck assigned me to the 5th of the 27th Artillery, and specifically to B Battery at LZ Sherry. At the time I knew nothing of Sherry or its history. I rarely saw Colonel Tuck after he assigned me to Sherry, but after my first six months in the field he called to tell me that he could get me posted to a general’s staff in the Philippines for the rest of my tour. I eventually turned him down because for some weird reason I felt like I had to stay in the field to get my year in Nam behind me. I felt like leaving before my time was up would be a cop-out.
Colonel Richard Cabell Tuck, a direct descendent of Patrick Henry and graduate of West Point, was an assistant professor in the French Department at West Point for three years. Colonel Tuck was a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College and the Ecole Superieure de Guerre, Paris (the French War College). He served in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and in command and staff positions in Europe and the Pentagon. He holds the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star and nine Air Medals.
A Rude Introduction
The trip down to Sherry was unfortunately eventful. I had just gotten to LZ Betty at Phan Thiet, at Alpha battery, and I was sitting there eating lunch with a bunch of other people when there was a loud shot outside. Somebody had shot and killed himself in the chow line right outside the door. Some guy took his rifle and put it to his head and pulled the trigger. I thought: Holy shit what in the world is going on here? That was my introduction to the field
Later that night Sherry got hit and I watched, and heard, the whole firebase open up in response. The next morning I was there.
How He Earned His Chops
I came into Sherry as the XO. Within a week or two after I got to the battery I got into a shoving match with the XO I was replacing because I had countermanded an order he had given to run the FADAC artillery computer eight hours a day. This thing was the size of a small car, and was placed inside the confined space of the fire direction center. It sounded like a loud vacuum cleaner with issues, You could go deaf listening to that thing and it was driving everyone in the Fire Direction Center nuts. Headquarters told us to run it to keep it dry in the Vietnam humidity, but we never used it for actual fire missions.
I remember going into the FDC, and it was Charlie and Jenkins and maybe Paul, and these guys were not exactly shy about speaking to officers. I came in and said, “If you guys could change anything what would you change?”
The first thing they said was to get rid of FADAC.
I said, “You’re right. Absolutely.” My feelings about orders from the rear were: What the hell, they’re not here. I’m here, my ass is here, and I’m going to do what I think is necessary under the circumstances.
So I turned off the FADAC, and that’s when the old XO got on me. He was kind of tight assed. I recall he wanted to be a lifer, or at least acted like it. We had had a few beers and I told him: Fuck you basically, we’re not going to turn it back on. And we bumped a little bit, and that was it.
I didn’t know it, but one of the enlisted guys – it might have been Paul – overheard our conversation when I told the lieutenant to take his FADAC and REMF orders and shove them, and saw the pushing. So I guess I became a champion of the enlisted guys early on, but didn’t know it until someone told me about it later. And that’s how I got my chops with the guys.