Monthly Archives: September 2016

Bob Christenson – The Last Battery Commander – Part Five

The Last Battle: Getting Home

We had a saying:


I was back in Phan Rang in the Air Force BOQ (bachelor officers quarters), because they had air conditioning and real beds. The Army BOQ had cots and old mosquito netting. It was the day I was supposed to fly to Cam Rahn to get my plane to get out of there. Of course all of us from Sherry had bad thoughts about that flight to Cam Rahn Bay. (Seven month before George Beedy’s plane ran into a mountain on that flight.) I’m up at 6:00 in the morning, it’s just getting light. I go outside my BOQ room, which is like a cinderblock motel, and there’s a guy out there with a mama-san smoking a joint. He’s an Air Force guy. I say, “How are you?” And I say, “I’m leaving today.”

He says, “That’s great. That’s really cool.”

I say, “I’m going to Cam Rahn Bay.”

He says, “Wow! Great! I’m flying that plane.” And he’s out there smoking dope.

I say, “You’re flying that plane?”

He says, “Yeah, we’re taking off in a couple hours.”

I thought: OK, there’s your sign. When Beedy’s plane ran into the mountain on his way to Cam Ranh it really shook everybody up. I convoyed from Phan Rang all the way up to Cam Rahn. My adventures were over. I was not going to fly in that plane.

Six months prior on November 29, 1970, Sp4 George Beedy died on his way home, when his plane out of Phan Rang hit a mountain in heavy cloud cover. There were no survivors.

So I got to Cam Rahn and hung around there for a couple days. We were in big barracks. They would come in and read off a list of names and you’d get on the plane. After two days or so, Bammo, there we go. I was the second plane of the day. The first plane went up and ours was four hours later. We get on the plane. I took a bunch of sleeping pills someone had given me and I was so wired to get out of there they didn’t do anything at all.

The pilot came on and said, “Look, normally we would make a stop along the way, but we got plenty of fuel, a tail wind that is kicking butt, and we can go straight on through. What do you guys want to do?”

Well you can imagine. Everyone said, “GO, GO, GO.”

So we did a non-stop, which was great. We landed at Ft. Lewis and started taxiing to the gate when the pilot came on and said, “We got a little problem. The plane that left four hours before us stopped along the way and got here just before us. We’re gonna be here on the tarmac for ten or fifteen minutes while they process those guys.”

Everybody’s fine with that. This is a whole plane full of lieutenants and captains. Everybody’s cool. Some guys could see their wives and their kids out at the gate waving to them. Fifteen or twenty minutes go by and nothing happens. Half an hour goes by and nothing happens. There’s no air conditioning on the plane. Finally somebody says to the pilot, “What’s going on here?”

The pilot says, “Well they got to search these guys and their baggage and they don’t have the facilities to search you guys at the same time. So they have to do the other plane before we can go in there. But we’ll be out of here shortly.”

Two hours later we are still on the plane. It’s hotter ‘n hell of course. The people are starting to get restless. I think the pilots had left at that point, sensing trouble. There was a major who was the ranking guy on the plane. He said, “Let me see if I can at least open up the doors.” They opened up the doors, but we’re all still sitting there.

Remember, most of us on the plane were getting out of the friggin’ Army in one or two more days, and whatever happened they couldn’t send us back to Vietnam. People could see their wives, kids and parents just a few hundred feet away. Some of them hadn’t seen their families for a year. The mood on the plane got ugly.

We’re now sitting on the tarmac for three hours or more. They send people out to the airplane and tell us it’s going to be ten or fifteen more minutes. The place went into open rebellion. People started tearing seats out and throwing them out the door. The door was fifteen feet off the ground and people were wondering: Can we just jump? They can’t stop us. It was crazy.

That did it. Someone came up and said they would take us off the plane now. They ran us through and didn’t bother to check us carefully. In another half an hour that plane would have been toast. I never saw anything like it in my life. It was the last insult.

When I got to the commercial airport it was six or seven at night. I got a plane back to Chicago, which left maybe six hours later. It was a Boeing 747, and I had never been on a 747 before. It was like the coolest thing in the world. I’ll tell you what the pilot did. I’ll never forget this. He came down and met me as I got on the plane. He shook my hand and walked me up to the front of the plane. He said, “You’re flying first class.” I was the only person in first class. I sat down and went to sleep before we took off and woke up when we were landing in Chicago.

But Am I Really Home?

Captain DeFrancisco used to point out a snaggletooth tree you could see from our firebase on top of a distant ridgeline that we used as an aiming reference. He said, “When I was here before I used that same tree as an aiming point.” When I got back to the states that was my nightmare: being at Sherry for a year and coming home safe, and then one day being sent back and waking up back in the same hell-hole, looking up at that same tree. I would wake up at night and be mixed up about where I was. Am I here or am I there? I thought maybe I was still in Vietnam and my life since leaving there had been a dream.

Going to Vietnam you’re in the United States and after a twenty-four hour plane ride you’re in Vietnam. I remember that flight coming down the coast at night into Vietnam, looking down and seeing the illumination rounds in the air below us and the tracers and all the shit going on and thinking: What in the hell am I getting into? Then they literally dive the plane into the airport to avoid being shot at. That whole jarring reality change in just a few hours.

It was even worse going back, because now you are settled into the reality of Vietnam, but you’re suddenly back in the States with people walking around like nothing is happening,   another sudden new reality. I would wake up in the middle of the night not sure if this was a dream or that was a dream, or where I was. You lose your sense of reality. Am I in Vietnam dreaming about home, or am I at home dreaming about Vietnam? The realities were so different and the edges so blurred that I just didn’t know. That lasted for a few years.

It’s not like we had the worst experience in the world. I can only imagine what the infantry guys went through. These days I think a lot about the guys who are sent on multiple combat tours to the Middle East. How can you keep your head on straight after going through that?

Fired In Anger

Like many veterans Bob was conflicted about his time in the Army, and at the same time is proud of his service. He has close at hand an ashtray made from a brass artillery canister, presented to him when he left Vietnam. The inscription reads: 

To 1st Lieutenant Robert Christenson

12 July 1970 to 3 June 1971

From the Officers of the 5th Battalion 27th Field Artillery.

 It originally had a 50 caliber bullet in the center, but they confiscated the slug at Ft. Lewis, so now it is just an empty casing. It’s a wonderful thing to have. All the officers got one of those. It was made out of a canister from a white phosphorous round. If you look on the bottom it says “1944.” We had all that ammunition, just like our C-rations, from WWII. We used a white phosphorous round because its canister was brass. All the other canisters were heavy cardboard or steel. We’d put a minimum time fuse on them and shoot them straight up for a nice airburst or just over the wire. There were few uses for WP rounds in Vietnam, except maybe to start fires. On the bottom of the ashtray it says Fired In Anger, but really it was fired in order to get an ashtray.

Two ashtrays in the making Picture by Steve Bell
Two ashtrays in the making
Picture by Steve Bell 

Out of Vietnam Bob applied to Loyola Law School in Chicago, encouraged by a fellow officer at LZ Sherry. He had less than remarkable grades as an undergraduate, but gained affirmative action admission as a veteran. In class he sat with an intimidating group of other Vietnam vets. The professors and students gave them a lot of room, not knowing how crazy they might be and not wishing to find out. In a blind grading system, whereby the professors did not know the identities of the students they were grading, Bob graduated fifth in the class. He is now a successful labor attorney in Atlanta. He and his wife Kim have five kids and nine grandkids. Bob still flashes that mischievous smile he wore in Vietnam.

Bob Christenson – The Last Battery Commander – Part Four

The Chill Continues

After Captain DeFrancisco left I became the battery commander as a 1st lieutenant for a few months when they ran short of captains they trusted with command. Right away I had another run-in with the First Sergeant when I countermanded his order that the guys had to wear uniform tops in the mess hall. People complained about wearing shirts in the mess hall. I said to forget it, you don’t have to do that anymore, it’s crazy. Top got pissed and thought I was messing with his discipline, which I probably was. But I gained a little credibility with the men by doing that.

In general I let Top run the place and didn’t cross him. I said to him, “Look, it’s your firebase.” It was always his firebase anyway. “I know it. You know it.” That was my whole MO. I didn’t mess with anybody unless they needed messing with.

The Hardest Thing

There was a kid from Detroit whose name I can’t remember. He had been sent home on some kind of emergency leave because something awful had happened, his mother and father had been killed in a car wreck. It was pretty bad, but he came  back and had been in the battery for a couple weeks.  I was in FDC at the time with Barry Eckert on the radio, when another call came in telling us that this kid’s grandmother, sister and her baby had been killed in a house fire. I had them verify the information because it was so inconceivable that something else could happen like this. That afternoon I had to call the kid into my hooch and tell him what had happened. It was awful. They sent him home for good this time. Hardest thing I have ever had to do.

Not This Time

Just like at LZ Betty the year before, an order came down from Phan Rang to chain and lock up our M16s. They were concerned that there was going to be a rebellion at the firebase, that some officers would be shot. That was just insane. There wasn’t going to be a revolt at the firebase, and locking up our weapons in the middle of a war was the stupidest thing I ever heard, worse than the orders to keep the FADAC computer running. What idiots. We never implemented that order, which was one thing Top and I absolutely agreed upon. I told the rear that they could court martial me or throw me in jail, but I was not locking up our weapons, and they dropped it. They obviously had not learned from Betty.

In early May 1970, with all of its weapons locked away, including those of Delta Company of the 1/50th Infantry that had just returned from the field, LZ Betty had been overrun by a combined force of NVA and Viet Cong.

The new BC in firm possession of his M16
In firm possession of his M16

Lousy Shots – Thank Goodness

 One day some papa-san was out gathering wood west of the battery in the off-limits zone.  Maybe he was VC, but who knows?  All the locals knew better than to hang out there, and the guy was around the creek wash that the VC used to sneak around in. So maybe he was up to no good. We fired a couple warning shots over his head but he didn’t pay any attention. Everybody wanted to shoot at the guy, and kept after me to let them go. I checked about five times with the ARVN clearance people because I really didn’t want to start blasting away at some farmer, but all they would say was: Go ahead and shoot. So I reluctantly let the Dusters on that side of the battery start shooting at the guy. There were about twenty people gathered around the duster. I think some of them were there to see this guy get blown away, and others because they couldn’t believe what was going to happen.

The Duster popped a few rounds out there that missed the guy pretty badly. Once he realized they were shooting at him he started to run, and the Duster guys opened up in earnest. There were rounds going off all around the guy. After about ten seconds of this, which seemed forever to me, I couldn’t take it anymore and jumped up on the Duster and told them to stop the hell shooting. The guy got away and in the end I think everyone was pretty relieved that they didn’t hit him. I know I was. The whole thing freaked me out. It would have been one thing if he had a gun or was obviously VC.  But this wasn’t the case. Thank God the Duster guys were such bad shots.

No Medal For Mike

Mike Leino
Mike Leino

Somewhere along the line I put Mike Leino in for a medal for saving a guy’s life. Mike was a laid back guy, and probably could have cared less about a medal, but he deserved one. They were burning trash and whoever it was poured gasoline on the trash to ignite it, and when he lit it, the guy managed to turn himself into a human torch. Leino was the only guy out there and tackled him and put the fire out. The guy had third degree burns and was sent home. Mike saved his life.

I thought Mike’s effort was pretty outstanding, so I filled out the paperwork and went through headquarters back in Phan Rang to get something for him. A few weeks went by without any response, so I started sniffing around. Finally someone told me that the battalion commander had nixed it because burning trash with gas was against regulations, and if he had submitted my recommendation it would have been evidence that someone in his command wasn’t following protocol. So no medal recommendation ever got past headquarters.

I was pretty pissed about that, and after I got home to the states I sent a long letter to the editor of the Detroit Free Press, Mike’s home town newspaper, explaining that they had a real hero in their midst and why, and explaining why he had never been recognized. I never heard anything back, and a few months later found out that the paper was on strike and not publishing. I guess my letter got nowhere. The whole thing left a really bad taste in my mouth about the Army.

On Further Reflection

We all did some dumb things, and I certainly did my share. But my all-time dumbest move took place when a few of us took a LOACH (a light reconnaissance helicopter) out to reconnoiter a coordinate that intelligence told us was being used as an NVA staging area for an assault on Sherry. Huge mistake and I knew better and am very lucky to be alive after that one.

I was a couple weeks from going home at the time. We got word that the NVA was going to have our asses one night, much like the warning we had a few months before. The intelligence gave us a general staging area so the battalion LOACH came down and we took off to have a look. I think there were three or four of us, I don’t think the LOACH could carry more than that. The area was about three miles or so out to the northwest of the firebase.

We got there and didn’t see much of anything, until someone spotted what looked like a shirt hung up on a tree branch and flapping around. Somehow, incredibly, I got talked into allowing the helicopter to land to check it out. I’m still shaking my head over that decision, but we were young and invincible, right?  We had a couple M16s and I had my .45 pistol. So we put down in a grassy area with pretty good visibility and had a look around. The pilot stayed in the LOACH and kept the rotors going. I had my .45 out and we walked around a little bit. We didn’t see anything suspicious. About a minute later I walked onto the top of a bunker that had been dug into the ground. It was built with concrete railroad ties and completely covered by grass that had been cut and laid over the top to hide the bunker. The grass was so fresh it was still green and not yet wilted in the heat. One of my boots went between the railroad ties and I started to fall into the bunker, and everything kind of flashed in front of my eyes. I thought how stupid I was seeing the fresh grass and knowing the NVA was in the area, and maybe this was the end for me. It sounds dramatic but I wasn’t really scared. I just thought: I’m going to take as many of the bastards with me as I can. Anyway, no shots from the bunker, and I caught myself on one of the ties before I dropped completely through. I yelled to the others to get the hell out of there.

We hit the chopper on the run and took off. On the way back to Sherry we took a reading on the direction of the bunker, and once back plotted on our grid chart where we had been. Later that night after it got dark and I felt like it was the right time, we shot a THREE ROUND BATTERY ZONE AND SWEEP on the target.  At least I think that’s what we used to call it. Each of our six guns shot three rounds at three different but close deflections and three different but close quadrants, for a total of twenty-seven rounds per gun, or a hundred and sixty-two rounds in all. That way we covered a lot of ground quickly around the target. I think we probably shot VT (radar fuses resulting in fifty meter air bursts). We got what sounded like a couple secondary explosions.

A few days later the ARVNs swept the area. They reported back lots of body parts and some ridiculous estimate of twenty-five or more dead. The idea was that we had dropped our rounds on the VC/NVA by surprise while they were all out there exposed. Of course we never got out there to take a look ourselves, so who knows? Body counts were notoriously unreliable. It may be that nothing was there but craters, and the ARVNs just told the higher-ups what they wanted to hear. Or more likely, the ARVNs never went out at all and just reported as if they had. The NVA attack never came, but maybe it was never coming, like the other time we had been warned. But who knew? Clearly something was going on out there.

Anyway, I got religion when I was falling into that bunker.  Someone had been there very shortly before we arrived. There were no more adventures or take-chances left in me. On my way home a few weeks later when I saw the pilot of my plane to Cam Rahn smoking dope with his momma-san, I convoyed.

The Last BC

 Lt. Christenson left LZ Sherry in June of 1971, just days before the battery and its equipment transferred to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. On August 31, 1971 B Battery and the rest of the 5th Battalion were deactivated.

When I left Sherry there were rumors that we would be standing down, but that was about it. I had no idea that it would happen so fast. I never thought about being the last battery commander. I would rather that legacy be left to Captain DeFrancisco, who deserved a spot in the history books.

Joe DeFrancisco was a great officer. There’s no question about that. He was a good guy. I felt very at home with him, even though he had gone to West Point, which was pretty alien as far as I was concerned. He was Regular Army, and all that stuff. He was a guy who was very directed but didn’t act gung-ho. I thought he was terrific. He was bright, a good guy to talk to. He never overreacted. He was a great commander. He was a natural. We both took our roles at the firebase seriously, but for him it was his career. I can tell you Jon Varat, who came after me in FDC, and I had many, many conversations with him about: What the hell are you wasting your talents for in the Army? Joe embraced people who were worthy of expressing their opinion and having conversations with him on an intelligent level. Rank didn’t make any difference when you got in his hooch. The rank just fell off. Now, I am super glad Joe didn’t leave the military, because he was an outstanding officer. I have no doubt that Joe played a significant role in bringing the Army back from the disastrous shape it was in after Vietnam.

Bob Christenson – The Last Battery Commander – Part Three

After four months as Fire Direction Officer 1st Lt. Christenson again became the battery XO – Executive Officer second in command behind the battery commander.

Race Relations

 Our unit was a mix of all races, but I don’t remember any racial tension. The black guys had their area and the white guys had theirs.  I think I got along with everyone because I stood up for the enlisted guys and cut the crap where I could, so I was OK with them.

What I basically did was leave enlisted guys alone, both white and black. A lot of being a successful officer was asserting your authority only when you had to assert it. Otherwise leave well enough alone. They were doing their jobs and things were functioning well on the firebase. Rightly or wrongly I saw my job there as keeping all of us alive. I didn’t give a damn about shooting Vietnamese. We had to shoot fire missions on time and on target to protect our guys, but the idea was to keep us all alive and get us out of there. To the extent that I had command authority that’s how I always exercised it. That was my mission.

I know the black guys, the same with white guys, had their hooches and you did not go in there unless you were asked, which was fine with me. Nothing sinister about any of that. People want to be by themselves. They didn’t need an officer barging in there and looking around and giving them an inspection in the middle of the friggin’ Central Highlands. I mean, that’s stupid. Just stupid.

The Fragging

 It happened in my hooch, while I was gone on R&R, meant for a second lieutenant who didn’t have a clue to the point that some of the enlisted guys decided he was a danger to all of us. He graduated from college ROTC a second lieutenant, and then took the officer’s basic course for six months at Ft. Sill. He took thirty days leave and then they sent him to Vietnam. So he had never been in the Army. He never would have made it through OCS in a million years. He wanted to be liked, but he couldn’t help himself. He thought he was a hot item and marched around giving the gun crews silly orders.

He was outed early on when one of the gun crews asked him to safety some H & I rounds. He checked the sight picture in the pantel scope, but while doing so one of the gun crew guys held his hand over the top of the instrument, so the aiming stakes were invisible. The lieutenant said “Excellent sight picture,” and they knew they had him. After that the crews basically had their way with him.

One night, one of the crews called him over to a gun and told him they were concerned because the tube ring seemed to be off. Howitzer tubes were made of precision steel, and if you hit one with a small hammer or screwdriver it rang like crystal. Of course, tube ring means nothing, but the lieutenant didn’t know that. They had him running from gun to gun comparing the tube rings while everyone watched. That was the final straw, and he became the laughingstock of the battery. When he discovered that they had made a fool out of him, he doubled down on his alleged authority, but that just made things worse.

When I got back from R&R I walked into my hooch and there was a friggin’ hole in the bottom of my hooch where the sandbags had been blasted out. What the hell is this? Somebody told me we had a rocket attack while I was gone. I didn’t think anything of it. And then I started thinking how come there is a hole way down here? That’s not a rocket. Finally somebody told me this lieutenant got fragged. They rolled the grenade inside the hooch while he was there. Then one of the gun bunnies came up to me and said, “But sir, at least we waited until you were gone.” Shortly thereafter I was told that someone had overheard my argument with the outgoing XO just after I got to Sherry, and that it had gotten around the battery that I stood up for the enlisted guys. At that moment, thinking about that hole in my hooch, it was very nice to be appreciated. 

From Seven In A Jeep: A Memoir Of The Vietnam War,

by Ed Gaydos, FDC Section Chief

The lieutenant was shaken but unharmed. The perpetrator was never found, and frankly nobody looked that hard, including Top, although at formation the next morning he delivered an old fashioned, old Army tongue lashing, his face growing more crimson and his language more colorful by the minute.

An uneasy quiet settled on the battery. Captain Joe took the lieutenant off the guns, leaving him minimal responsibilities. The lieutenant spent his days drifting from place to place, avoiding the gun crews entirely, a manufactured smile on his face. He came into the FDC bunker every day and attached himself to Lt. Christenson. The two of them came to our little hooch parties at night, where Christenson was the comic center of attention and the lieutenant was happy to sit and be one of the guys. He eventually left the battery, a lonely, sad figure. 

Hunting Big Game

The rats were so pervasive around Sherry that we used to set rat traps with gum in them for bait. But that was kind of boring and the rats always eventually figured it out. So someone had the idea to take a pair of pliers and pull the lead part out of a bullet and cram the casing into a piece of soap, making it a soap-round. You’d chamber a soap-round in your M16, turn out all the lights and put something delectable out there. It only took about five minutes, and pretty soon the rats would start coming out of the sand bag walls. You could shoot and kill the rat without a lead round ricocheting around on the inside of the hooch. That really worked. You got two or three a night. I used to take the dead rats and throw them outside the hooch into the weeds. Finally it got smelling so bad that I had to stop doing that. We kept a chart in the XO hooch to see who was the mightiest rat hunter in the place. Obviously entertainment was at a premium.

Trick of the Trade

 Funny, but I remember George Peppard coming to Sherry. I got my picture taken with him. He was a little short guy but for pics he put his arm around your shoulder and boosted himself up so in the picture he always looked like the tallest person there. He told me it was one of the tricks of the trade.

Skunky Beer

One of the things I remember most about Sherry was the skunky beer. Don’t get me wrong, it was better than no beer at all. But we were at the end of the supply chain, so everyone from the ports people to the supply types at Phan Rang and then Phan Thiet got first choice before it came out to the field. And once it got to Sherry I think Top (who controlled the beer) might have siphoned off anything remotely decent. I think we got Budweiser in aluminum cans once, and that was probably by mistake. The rest of the time it was Carlings Black Label in rusty, pre pop-top steel cans. The cans were so old that they looked like they were left over from WW II. You needed a church key to open them up, something that had long since disappeared from life back in the states.

Big Doc and Little Doc

We had two medics at Sherry. Big Doc I think was from Pennsylvania.

Big Doc
Big Doc

Over a period of weeks Big Doc mailed an M-16 home in pieces. I told him he’d get caught, but later he said everything arrived, and he probably still has it today. Nice…they skin-searched everyone coming home but you could mail back a fully automatic M-16 without a problem. I think he even sent back a couple of 20-round magazines.

Big Doc also had a battery powered turntable and one record, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. He’d play it every night while we drank that warm Black Label. Down by the River and Cowgirl in the Sand became the soundtracks of my time at Sherry. They’re still two of my favorites, and bring back memories of Vietnam every time I hear them.

Little Doc Mason was from Ohio.

Christensen (helmeted and Little Doc Mason in FDC
Christensen (helmeted)
and Little Doc Mason in FDC

Because of Little Doc the Ohio state flag flew over the firebase on the Tipsy-25 radar mast, just under the U.S. flag. One afternoon a guy on one of the guns had his leg shattered when he got in the way of the recoil on his howitzer. He was in terrible pain, but Little Doc got him doped up, and we got him out a few hours later on a Medevac “dust off” flight. I think most of Little Doc’s other business was dispensing penicillin to take care of whatever diseases some of the guys caught during their regular trips to Phan Thiet and the whore hootch outside our wire. 

Two Close Calls

The first close call happened at night during another Medevac dust off. All our lights were out, including the lights on the radar tower. I was on the radio guiding the pilot in. As he was on final approach I realized I hadn’t told him about the tower and the guywires holding it up. Of course, his lights were also off. He got in anyway, to my incredible relief. Those dust off pilots were fabulous.

Then about midway through my tour I was calling in defensive fire on our position from Betty. These were pre-planned targets we would shoot in case we were overrun. I was walking it in as close as I could. I was in one of the guard towers on the perimeter, and for some reason I think Jim Jenkins was there with me. Normally, we ducked down behind the sandbags when the rounds came in, but on this occasion I was up watching the explosions. I was leaning up against one of the six-by-six posts that held up the roof, and a piece of shrapnel zinged into it right above my head. You remember the zinging noise shrapnel made as it flew through the air? A couple inches lower and it would have been curtains. I never did that again.

Lt. Christenson indicating LZ Sherry on the map with his combat pointer. Note the overlapping firing fans from LZ Betty to the southwest and LZ Sandy to the northeast.
Lt. Christenson indicating LZ Sherry on the map with his combat pointer. Note the overlapping firing fans from LZ Betty to the southwest and LZ Sandy to the northeast.
Shrapnel Four inches long and razor sharp
Shrapnel – four inches long and razor sharp

The Long Lanyard

Someone in Phan Rang got the bright idea that they wanted to find out if a time fuse actually had a built in two second delay, so if you set it on zero and shot it, it would still not go off for two seconds. They decided we were going to be the guinea pigs to find out. I think we all thought that this was a pretty hair-brained experiment, but we did it anyway. We made an extra-long lanyard, so whoever was shooting the gun could be behind the parapet in case the thing did go off right out of the tube. We told everyone in the battery to get down and behind something. Unfortunately, I believe I was the one who ended up pancaked behind the parapet and actually pulled the extra-long lanyard. Happily for me, we found that there was in fact a two-second delay, which of course was built in to keep someone like me from blowing himself up if he was ignorant enough or careless enough to shoot a time fuse set to zero.  What were we thinking?

Bob Christenson – The Last Battery Commander – Part Two

The Artist Within

Memories of 1st. Lt. Christenson by Ed Gaydos, FDC Section Chief

From Seven In A Jeep: A Memoir Of The Vietnam War

From the beginning I liked this new lieutenant with the Tom Sawyer smile. His first order of business was to decorate his room in the FDC bunker where the officer in charge slept. On one wall he drew a caricature of Vice President Spiro Agnew wearing a hard hat with two American flags sticking from it. On another wall he created a perfect rendering of Mr. Zig Zag, the bearded figure on roll-your-own cigarette papers and patron saint of potheads. The lieutenant hung out with the enlisted men, and was often the only officer at our evening hooch parties, a frat brother as much as an officer. He and Captain Joe were the best officers I served under in Vietnam.

Spiro and Mr. Zig Zag Flanking a short timer's chart
Spiro and Mr. Zig Zag
Flanking a short timer chart

Shortly after my initial disagreement with the departing XO over FADAC, I began my career at Sherry as the Fire Direction Officer. In the beginning I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying to learn the ropes, and had some time on my hands I guess. I never had any artistic talent in my life at all: zero. Whatever it was, the pressure, the change of scenery, whatever it was, all of a sudden I could draw stuff. I discovered I could do it. It’s like these people who are in traumatic situations and something in them changes. I figured the place needed some decorating so I drew those pictures on the walls. I think I probably found a pack of Zig Zag papers (they were all over the place because some of the country boys liked to roll their own) and did the Zig Zag guy. Spiro Agnew I just drew from memory, which was crazy. I don’t know how I was able to do that.

And I’ve never been able to draw since.

It was the stress. Totally stress. I used to have hallucinations, not drug induced, but I would have out-of-body stuff, floating around seeing myself. Yeah. Three or four times pretty much the whole time I was there, which I never experienced before and never experienced after I got back to the states. I think it was being thrown into that crazy atmosphere. The artistic talent and all the weirdness was all stress related. It had to be. Very strange.

A Crazy Night in Paradise

The First Sergeant and I were never friends, and we hardly ever talked. It was Top’s firebase and everybody knew it. He had no use for lieutenants, especially those who were obviously not lifers. But we never had any real issues. I had very few conversations with him. Probably the longest conversation I had with him was when he chased one of our officers with a flare threatening to shove it up his ass.

It happened one night after this officer went into Top’s hootch when he was off drinking somewhere and took his fan. There was some VIP spending the night, which as you know was a real rarity. No one over the rank of captain EVER spent the night at Sherry. This officer took Top’s fan out of his hooch so the VIP could be comfortable.

Top came back to his hooch drunk as a motor scooter and went to bed not knowing the fan was gone. In the heat of the night he pissed himself, woke up, realized his fan was gone and went nuts. I am not making this up. He somehow found out who had taken his fan and went after him with a hand flare.

It was two or three in the morning. I remember being in FDC and hearing the commotion and running outside and seeing five or six guys standing around watching Top chase this guy around with the flare. Top was circling him with wet skivvies and bulging red eyes, and had one of those popper flares in his hands, growling that he was going to ram that flare up his ass and touch it off. He had taken the top off the flare and put it on the bottom so all he needed to do was smack it to make it go off. At the time, it seemed like a real possibility. The officer was dancing around as Top circled him, making sure that his butt was out of reach.

People were afraid, because Top looked like he meant it. Finally the guy got far enough away and someone, I think it was the Chief of Smoke, grabbed Top and calmed him down and got his fan back. Fans were like gold over there.

Of course this was another thing that never got reported to Phan Rang, and to me it was very uncharacteristic of Top. He was such a soldier that he would never go after an officer. He knew he was wrong, and he backed down. But it wasn’t the sort of thing you could ever remind him of again.

When it happened,  I was afraid Top was actually going to do it, but with the passage of time the scene is so funny I get tears from laughing so hard. Just another crazy night in paradise.

Deadly Trash

One night we received an illumination mission, and when we plotted the trash coordinates on our charts it matched up with the location of a small village.

After an illumination round pops in the air the heavy steel canister continues along its trajectory, making it necessary to know where “the trash” is going to land.

We, or at least I, cleared the mission through a US contact, but that contact also cleared through an ARVN source, and in this case the ARVNs said go ahead and fire because the village wasn’t really there. “ARVN” stood for Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, our so-called allies.

As you may recall we, or at least I, had a strong distrust of the ARVNs: it seemed like we always got hit after an ARVN unit went by. I think they dropped off equipment and ammunition for the VC. I know they were dropping off drugs at the firebase. I recall one of our E-7 sergeants coming to me when I was battery commander telling me that he had spotted an ARVN officer outside the wire acting strange. I sent the sergeant out there, and he came back with a cube made up of about seventy small plastic boxes each filled with heroin. The ARVN officer had dropped it in the weeds to be picked up by one of the pushers on the firebase.

Anyway, I cleared the illumination mission several times, telling our US contact that our charts showed we were going to drop the empty canisters on a village. He said to go ahead and fire the mission anyway. I had a very bad feeling about this and got the guy’s initials, along with the initials of his Vietnamese counterpart. We weren’t on a secure radio network, so I could not get full names. I figured it would be me they would be looking for if we shot the mission without absolute protection.

We shot the mission, and sure enough about a week later we got an ominous radio call that we had wrecked a village with our trash and a number of people had been killed. The ARVNs wanted a full investigation, and I think, were trying to shift the blame to us for the mistake. But we had the initials and time of clearance and the whole story. After we explained what had happened and given our information to the US contact, the whole thing went away without another word.  I think we dodged a major bullet. If we hadn’t gone the extra mile to verify identification information, a bunch of us, probably me, would have been toast.

The All Important Hats

One night we were playing cards in the FDC – I recall it well because someone, I think it might have been Ed Gaydos, who always had a dry sense of humor, casually tossed off, “Sir, is that a scorpion crawling up your leg?” Damn straight it was. I jumped up, brushed the thing off, and stomped it. We had just dealt again when we heard some distant pops, and a round went entirely over the battery, and then a second and third round hit inside the wire somewhere.

I grabbed my steel pot, ran out the door and saw a round on the way in. It was streaming sparks so you could see the flat trajectory and where it was coming from. I ran back in and yelled that it looked like rockets coming from around 5600 (metric direction corresponding to northwest). As I recall we usually blamed any incoming on that unfortunate direction, and then ran out again and headed to the perimeter where the fire was coming from. We were always concerned about a ground attack coming in while we were taking fire. From the FDC, that meant running across the broad, empty and exposed part of the firebase where we used to play baseball, to get to the guard tower on the berm.

While I was gone a call came into FDC for an officer to safety check the settings on Gun 3 on the northern perimeter near where I had just arrived. They could not find me, but were able to get a new second lieutenant named McDaniel who had been at Sherry for a few months. Just as he arrived at Gun 3 the VC fired another round. I saw it coming so I hit the dirt out there between the perimeter and the gun.  The round went right over me and exploded about sixty feet away in the Gun 3 parapet, and I figured a bunch of people must have been hurt or killed. Funny, but I don’t remember much about that night afterward, except McDaniel bleeding in FDC with a few small pieces of shrapnel in his arm. I do recall the brass coming in to pin purple hearts on people a few days later and complaining to me that some of the guys, including me, weren’t wearing hats per protocol. Typical.

Four men were wounded on Gun 3 that night, none fatally. It turned out the attackers had used a recoilless rifle, probably left behind by the ARVNs who had been in the area the day before. Two rounds hit the ammo bunker, one going clear through without detonating and the other hitting outside the door and igniting powder charges in the doorway.

Gun 3 ammo bunker
Gun 3 ammo bunker

Fun With Flares

I remember Bill Cooper, although I never knew him that well. On New Years Eve, after we had a few drinks, Cooper went out and caused all sorts of problems when he got on the berm and blew off a red flare. Red flares meant that someone had spotted VC in the wire, and that gun tubes would be lowered to shoot beehive rounds and direct fire. Beehive rounds were like giant shotgun shells fired from a howitzer, literally flattening everything in front of the gun. Within seconds the whole firebase opened up. One of the guns fired beehive in the direction of the flare, which basically cleared all of the wire in front of it. Then someone fired off a couple claymores, and then the phu gas went off on that side of the firebase (C4 plastic explosive in a fifty-five gallon drum of Napalm, positioned in the ground on an angle toward the enemy). All this was happening with the howitzers firing defensive rounds, the Quad-50s and Dusters banging away, and tracers flying everywhere. The sound was deafening and no one knew what was going on except that the red flare alert had gone up and we were under ground attack.

About thirty seconds later Cooper came running back into FDC saying, “Wait, wait, wait.” He claimed the flare was an accident, but I don’t know how you shoot one of those things by accident. And then everyone realized it was all a big mistake. That was dangerous. Who knows who could have been out in front of those howitzers when they went off with beehive? When something like that happens you shoot first and ask questions later. I mean, Geez.

1st lieutenant Bill Cooper, Executive Officer (XO) at the time, did not make a mistake. He intentionally fired off the flare to test the readiness of the firebase, but without telling anyone of his intention. Realizing immediately the gravity of his action he claimed he had made a mistake in order to avoid disciplinary action. Today he freely admits it was not the wisest decision.

Everyone in Vietnam did things they wish they hadn’t, including Bob Christenson.

I don’t know what we were doing or why we were doing it, but I had a white flare in the middle of the battery and I was going to shoot it off. Remember on the north side of the battery there was a small shed out by itself with explosive ordnance in it. I have this flare and I went to shoot it off, popped it off banging on the bottom, and I dropped it. The thing shoots along the ground right for this goddam shed, right for the door which was open. And I am looking at it and thinking: Holy shit! It’s going to blow everything! How am I going to explain it when this shed goes up? It missed by a few feet and died out in the grass. That’s between you and me. I don’t think I ever told anybody about it till now, it was too embarrassing.

But it wasn’t the worst mistake I made at Sherry. One quiet Sunday afternoon I had to test fire a howitzer which had received a new tube. I cleared the target grid, set the quadrant and deflection, loaded a round of HE high explosive, and fired. A millisecond later I realized I had fired a charge 7 rather than a charge 1, and the tube was pointing directly at Phan Thiet. I’ll never forget that feeling; I could picture a round of HE suddenly landing in the middle of Phan Thiet. I ran back to the FDC and checked the charts. It turned out that the charge and quadrant were just enough to get the round over Phan Thiet and out into the South China sea. A bunch of fishermen probably got the scare of their lives, and so did I.