Monthly Archives: November 2016

Jim Kustes – Gun Crew – Part One

Jim on Gun 5
Jim at Sherry on Gun 5

Into the Army

I got my acceptance letter to college and my draft notice on the same day. I was nineteen years old. I thought: There’s no way I can afford college anyway, so I’m just going to go in and let the Army pay for college when I get out.

I went to Buffalo for induction. You’re in a big classroom and somebody comes into the room and says, “You … you … you … Follow me.” They take five or six people, all going to the Marines. They left the room and we never saw them again.

I went to Ft. Dix in New Jersey for basic training in April of 1968 – nothing eventful there.

At the end of basic I got sent to artillery at Ft. Sill for AIT. It was pouring rain when I got there. In the day room the sergeant said, “Who’s got a poncho?” I happen to have mine and I gave it to him and he said to me, “You are now the platoon sergeant,” which meant I had to sit at this desk all night and answer the phone if it rang. I broke the cardinal rule of all draftees to stay in the background and not become known. Now every time the sergeant wanted something he’d call my name, because it was the only name he knew. I was nineteen years old; I didn’t know nothin’.

It Ain’t Fair

I ended up second in my class in artillery. The bad part was, and this is crazy, at the end when you get your orders for your next station they bring out a list of everyone who had made the next rank of E3 (private first class). Here I was the platoon sergeant and second in my class, and I didn’t make it. Out of seventy-five or so guys only half a dozen didn’t make the next rank. I couldn’t believe it! I would think I’d be at the top of the list.

I went in to see the lieutenant to ask him what happened. He said, “I’ll put a note in your file so you’ll make it when you reach your next assignment.” I found out that one of the clerks in the office was selling spots on the promotions list for twenty-five bucks. He’d take one name off and put another one on, and that’s how my name got taken off.


The sergeant who I gave my poncho to when I first arrived for AIT asked me if I wanted to go to the NCO school there at Ft. Sill (an advanced program comparable to the artillery training officers received, and which gave an automatic promotion to E4 upon entry, and to E5 upon graduation). Here I was thinking about going to the this school, the shake and bake program, but thought: No way, they are just screwing me all along and they’ll screw me there. And the thing is, you got sent to Vietnam right out of that program.

Instead I get sent to Germany. I spent five months in Germany, and I hated every minute of it. I was sent to Supply at headquarters battery because of my typing skills. I loved Germany itself, but my job was extremely boring. It was a nine-to-five job and all I did was sit. Just sit and not do anything. At five o’clock I’d go down to the bar and drink. I was making something like a hundred and thirty-eight dollars a month and I was broke all the time. The German mark then equaled twenty-five cents, and I think a beer was about one mark (the price of a beer on post at the enlisted club). And it was delicious beer too, which is where all my money went.

No money, doing a boring job; I actually volunteered to go to Vietnam. I had two friends I grew up with who were both in Vietnam. I’d get letters from them. I wanted a different experience.

A Different Experience On The Road To Sherry

I go to Ft. Lewis for a few weeks of Vietnam training. When I got to Vietnam I remember being at Phan Rang to get my assignment and the supply sergeant read my file and he was standing talking to the lieutenant and said he wanted me to stay there, because I had experience with the new supply forms that just came out. I said, “Yeah, I worked on them every day.” The supply sergeant was supposed to implement the new forms and didn’t know anything about them. When they looked at my record they also saw that I was second in my artillery class and the lieutenant said, No we need him in the field. And that’s when I went out to Sherry.

I remember how scared I was going out there. Most guys went on a helicopter. I went out on one of the convoys riding on top of an ammo truck with a couple of ARVN soldiers. In my Vietnam training at Ft. Lewis they told us about local customs, about men holding hands. Well one of those ARVN soldiers put his arm around me and I thought: What the hell is going on here? All the way out to the base he has his arm around me and I didn’t budge the whole time. If I pushed him away the last thing I needed was an argument, so I just sucked it up.

Ed Gaydos – Fire Direction Control – Part Six


The plane for home left from Cam Ranh airbase, just as filthy as I remembered it from a year earlier when I’d spent a couple days there in transit to Sherry. Back then I couldn’t get out fast enough, and the same held now.

As the plane rolled down the runway the cabin filled with happy chatter. When the plane left the ground a cheer went up and seemed to give the plane an extra little lift. Vietnam was only a few feet below us, but it felt like a thousand miles. I’d never felt that free. Maybe that is why every plane out of Vietnam was called The Freedom Bird. A very good name.

In civilian life the plane was a Pan American charter, with real civilian stewardesses. To my starved eyes they were goddesses. When the plane got to altitude, they deployed down the aisles. One stopped at my seat and said, “Can I get you anything?” Having not heard an American female voice for so long, it stunned me. The last time was when a Red Cross girl came into FDC, a significant enough event for me to write home about it.

September 16, 1970

I talked to a girl last week. An American! It’s only been five months. A couple of Red Cross chics came into our fire direction bunker, and I was in there all alone. I said something real intelligent, like, “Hi.”

Now six months later I was paralyzed again by the magic of a female voice. When I didn’t answer she said, “Well honey, when you decide you just push my button and I’ll come.” She smiled in a wicked way and went to the next row of seats. I followed her voice down the aisle. “Something to eat? Would you like a blanket?” I could have listened to it forever.

Halfway home over the dark Pacific I turned in my seat and looked to the back of the plane. I saw by the cabin’s half-light a boy asleep next to a stewardess, his head resting on her shoulder, like a Madonna and child, and I wished with all my heart to be on that shoulder.

Higher Education

A few weeks back from Vietnam, my skin fungus almost cured, I rushed into graduate school at the University of Missouri just in time for summer school. Like a long vomit, I just wanted the Army to be over so I could move on with my life. Gone were plans to bum around the country or take a boat to Bimini. I needed to get on with my life in a serious way. The main campus was in Columbia, a small town in the middle of the state. Downtown was right outside the campus gates and had one decent restaurant. The farms began a mile from downtown and did not stop until reaching Kansas City to the west and St. Louis to the east, 125 miles in either direction.

I had been dreaming for some time of living away from people and regaining my sense of personal privacy, and now I had the chance. For two years in the Army I ate, slept, showered, worked, played and sat on the latrine in public. Before that there were seven similar years in the seminary. In Vietnam I longed for the time when I could be alone.

August 15, 1970

I will need a few months by myself when I get home to work the regimented life out of my system. I think I am simply tired of people telling me what to do 24 hours a day. The desire for isolation is fairly common in the Army. Almost everyone I ask about their plans after the Army say they are going to live by themselves in the woods.

I rented a little place five miles east of town on a small lake and surrounded by pasture. The cows were perfect neighbors, they never gave orders and did not carry guns. I had no telephone, figuring that if someone wanted to see me they could catch me outside class or drive out and knock on my door. It was heaven.

Life on campus was far from heavenly. I had hardly gotten the sand from between my teeth when I found myself in the charged environment of the college campus of 1971. Students were in a white lather over the war, with more passion than understanding. Loud and mindless, they reminded me of the cows bellowing outside my bedroom window.

“An unjust and unwinnable war.”

“Post colonial imperialism,” whatever that meant.

“Baby killers.”

And my personal favorite, “Make love not war.”

When a few of my fellow graduate students found out I was just back from Vietnam they used me as their bayonet dummy. Young people who had never lived outside the covers of a book told me how I needed to think about Vietnam. They were passionate in their convictions, unencumbered by any real knowledge of Vietnam, and without life experiences to soften the hard edges of their opinions.

I always asked them one question, hoping to find someone willing to be quiet for a second and listen, “Would you like to know what it was really like over there?” No one did, because the principles involved were more important than the people. Had they taken the time to listen, they would have learned that I was not so much in favor of the war in theory, but very keen on fighting it in reality. My feelings were clear in a letter home after just two weeks at LZ Sherry.

May 16, 1970

The violent clashes on our college campuses over the expansion of the war into Cambodia is sad but understandable. I too would rather see an end to the mess. However, we have allowed the enemy virtually unrestricted use of a “neutral” country for almost six years, while refusing our own troops the opportunity to cross the border. It’s been a badly one sided game. Infiltration routes run from Cambodia … right through our backyard. And we pay for it. When the mortars and rockets are coming in, and you know where they’re getting them and you can’t do a thing about it and a medevac flies out a wounded 19 year old – well you look at it differently than the well fed, scrubbed, secure college student.

The soldier in combat was simply not a topic of conversation on campus. His experiences did not have the sweep of ideology and produced no grand proclamation. The principles were more important than the people. That was the raw nub of it. The individual soldier was insignificant, and he was the only one to notice.

Fortunately I was still in the emotional dead zone guys who had spent any time in the field brought back from Vietnam. I said to myself, It don’t mean nothin, which in Vietnam was a way not to care. About anything. The anger and disappointment I came to feel about those early days on campus came later, the emotions waiting for their time.

The Hero’s Welcome

Bob was a fellow graduate student, older and focused on his studies. I liked him because he spoke in a soft and measured manner. We talked about classes and professors, neither one of us volunteering much personal information.

Bob walked with a limp and one day I asked him about it. He said, “I’ve got a prosthesis and I’m still adjusting to it.”

I said, “I never would have guessed. What happened if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Stepped on a mine.”

“Wow. You loose it above or below the knee?”

“Above. That’s why I’m having some problems.”

We both went quiet for a little while. I said, “I was in Vietnam too and just got back a couple months ago.”

“Where were you?”

“Two Corps, outside Phan Thiet, at a 105 firebase.”

He said, “Cushy artillery job, huh? I was up by the DMZ, around Quang Tri a lot. Nasty stuff up there.”

“Yeah, anything near the borders. I had a buddy at Kontum. Same thing.”

He said, “I been back over a year, in and out of VA hospitals. Pretty depressing, all those guys with parts missing. Soon as I could get around on my own I got myself out. Now some days are good. A lot of them suck. So you couldn’t tell, right?”

“No, all I noticed was the limp.”

He said, “Listen, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention the Vietnam thing to anybody. They just don’t understand.”

That’s how this hero was welcomed home. He was shouted down and bullied into silence, a finger poked in the chest that held a Purple Heart.

My Madonna

I had met Kathleen on a blind date nine months before Vietnam while on leave in St. Louis. I did not know why she agreed to go out with me. I had no hair, no money and no prospects. What was this good Catholic girl from south St. Louis thinking?

Her parents welcomed me into the living room and invited me to relax on the sofa, saying she’d be out in a minute. Soon a petite Irish beauty walked into the room wearing a pair of low hip huggers in brown plaid. I was instantly in love. But she had forgotten something. She turned her back, wiggling those hip huggers out of the room, and oh my, now I was in lust.

Whenever I got a weekend pass I’d make the nine hour drive from Ft. Sill to St. Louis. Sunday night I’d leave for Sill with just enough time to get into uniform and report for morning duty, unshaven and looking a mess. Then in Vietnam we wrote regularly to one another.

In Columbia Kathleen came to visit my country hideaway on weekends. She was working on a master’s degree in earth science, and turned our walks in the woods into rock hunting expeditions. My job was to carry the rocks and load them into my VW bug, which groaned under their weight. She called the rocks her 100 million year old antiques. When the weather was nice we took rides on my motorcycle, a little 175 Honda. I thought it a romantic gift when I got her a helmet. She still carries a burn scar on her leg from brushing against the muffler. Or we sat behind my little cottage contemplating the lake and watching the cows. Such was my welcome. I didn’t get thanks from a grateful nation or free drinks in bars. Instead I got what I needed: a dark Irish madonna upon whose shoulder I could rest my screwed up head.

I don’t know why she went out with me in the first place, or more a mystery why she gathered me up after Vietnam. I did not return a charming fellow. In Vietnam I had counted the days to being a civilian again, had marked off every day with a red X, but now at home I felt out of place. I had come back different somehow. I had lost the emotions that seemed to come so easily to others. I could only comment when others had tears in their eyes. When they laughed from the belly, I had to work to get up a smile. Most of all I could not feel compassion for the suffering of others; nothing surprised or disgusted me. I was a mere observer, standing on the edge of life and looking in.

Kathleen said, “Give it time.” And she was right. Over the months I traded my Vietnam neuroses for all my old ones, and probably a few extra. I returned to getting angry over stuff that did not matter and worrying about things that never came to pass. One day I asked Kathleen about the plaid hip huggers that had enflamed my imagination when we first met. She said, “Oh, I threw those old things out a long time ago.” I knew I had gotten over Vietnam because, upon hearing this, I cried like a baby.

Ed Gaydos – Fire Direction Control – Part Five

On Second Thought

The First Sergeant stopped me as I walked across the battery. “I remem­bered you wanted to be an FO, and were pissed when the captain said no. So I talked to the new battery commander. He says it’s OK if you still want to go.” He paused and looked me full in the face. “But I would consider it a personal favor if you didn’t.”

Top had never before talked to me as an equal. I said, “Top, let me think about it.”

By then I was start­ing to look forward to going home and had an early start on a short-timer’s attitude about staying behind sandbags as much as possible. I still wanted to tromp around with the infantry and call in the big stuff, but sitting in the dark in my hooch there were two questions I could not answer. Why? And how crazy was I to volunteer in the first place?

The next morning I said to Top, “I’m not going, but thanks for checking, Top.”

He said, “Good decision.”

The Warrior Departs

Top left LZ Sherry shortly before me, meaning we had spent almost our entire tours together. I wrote home about his leaving:

February 5, 1971

I will be glad to see him go. I’ve been under him for ten months now and he is a raving irrational Tazmanian. I have never liked being yelled at and on occasion it took all my composure to ignore him. He knows I ignore him and does not bother me too much.

Top was retiring from the Army after this tour. Earlier he had stopped me after morning formation and said he noticed all the mail I was getting from colleges. Could he look at the forestry stuff? I had been trying to decide between forestry and psychology as my life’s work, not exactly a tight career focus. The two piles of brochures had been growing for some time. Top said he was thinking about what to do when he got out and forestry seemed interesting. I scooped up the whole pile and walked over to his hooch.

I found him sitting down. He raised his eyes with a look I had never seen from this veteran of two wars. It was a look of uncertainty. He was about to enter a world more threatening than any Viet Cong sapper or North Korean rifleman. There was something else he could not hide: envy of my youth and its easy optimism about the future.

We sat and went through the material, talking about the best schools, the ones that gave scholarship money, and the nature of the coursework. As we talked I imagined Top going into civilian society with his ham-handed approach to life, a face made old by the sun and the few remaining strands of hair clinging to his skull. Retiring from an unpopular war, he would find few people to value his experience, his skill or his judgment. He would be a holdover from a bygone age, struggling to find a place in a world that had moved on while he was busy fighting its wars.

Top returned the forestry brochures even though I said to keep them. He was not built for the classroom and I believe he knew it. He stood in front of the Huey that would take him away and waved. He held a big smile on his face and pretended to enjoy the moment, a showman to the end.

The closest I got to Top were the games of cribbage we played on night shift and the one conversation we had about his life after the military. I was too much of a twenty-five-year-old snob to let myself know him better. Top had been to hell and back in his military career and he cared passionately about his men. Those were rare qualities in a leader in Vietnam.

Andy Kach took this picture of Top as I like to remember him.

Dancing at Sherry

It is an irony of my military career that the person I was most happy to be rid of, I would give anything to see today.

My Own Departure

A lot of guys had fancy short-timer calendars in their hooches to mark off the days. I adopted the calendar hanging in FDC, because at midnight it was the sacred duty of the night crew to take up a special red marker and cross off the day. The formal reason for this was to get the date right on the endless forms that came out of FDC. The real reason came when the the guy with the marker announced: “One less day in Vietnam,” only using more colorful language.

Gaydos and his calendar
Gaydos and his calendar

When the red X landed on the day before your scheduled departure from Sherry, you packed your duffle bag and the next morning got on a Huey for the trip to Phan Thiet. There were no big going away parties. No ceremonies. No announcements even. One day a guy was there, the next he was gone. Some like Top got a wave from the troops, but most just got on the helicopter and left, as if on an­other routine errand to the rear. In a letter home my last night was not much different than any other night.

March 16, 1971

It is my last night at LZ Sherry. I would like to retire early tonight, but we are having a practice session for a coming inspection. Being the old experienced hand I will have to be there. I start at 6:30 in the morning and usually walk away from FDC around 11:00 at night.

The next morning I packed a duffle bag, exchanged home addresses with a few guys and stepped on the chopper. As we pulled into the air and turned south toward Phan Thiet, I looked on LZ Sherry for the last time. The ground was the same dry-season brown I saw when I arrived. The rice paddies around the firebase showed craters from howitzer and mortar fire, scars I knew would some­day heal. I was less sure of the marks on me.

Craters (white dots) in rice paddies around Sherry
Craters (white dots) in rice paddies around Sherry


Ed Gaydos – Fire Direction Control – Part Four

Tube Ring

 We were blessed with a succession of great lieutenants during my ten months at Sherry. They were smart, and to a person tried to do a good job. Most important they listened to people who knew more than they did, because they knew that’s how you made good decisions. Pretty simple. This story is about the one exception, a second lieutenant who wandered into LZ Sherry as a lamb among wolves.

His first assignment was as officer in charge of the howitzer crews. The lieutenant seemed to have learned nothing in artillery training and was slow to learn the ways of Vietnam. Yet he issued directives on such details as gun maintenance and crew rotation, and the veterans soon viewed him as a fool. Were this his only flaw, this young man would have grown into the job like most new officers, but with a few more bumps and scrapes than the average. However he suffered from another defect that would be his un­doing. He was gullible.

Late one night during a quiet period, a call came into FDC over the landline. “FDC…Gun 2.” It was Swede.

For the moment Swede was a corporal. Over a twelve-year career he had been up and down the enlisted ranks, work­ing his way up to sergeant and in a single act getting busted down to private. Just before deployment to Vietnam he slugged a staff sergeant, whom Swede insisted had it coming. Now he was on the rise again, having worked his way back up to corpo­ral.

He was a huge guy with a shock of blonde hair. Two large front teeth came out when he smiled, the dental work of a rab­bit in the head of a water buffalo. He was a simple guy who laughed with his whole body and was quick with his fists. Swede spent his evenings drinking and playing poker. He told me the reason getting busted never bothered him was that he made more money at cards than he ever earned in military pay. I liked Swede but was careful never to make him mad, and never to play poker with him.

“Yeah,” I said.

Swede said, “We have to take Gun 2 down.”

“OK. What’s going on?”

“Tube ring.”

“Say again?”

“The lieutenant’s here and we thought we ought to bring it to his attention. The tube ring doesn’t sound right.” There were a lot of things to worry about regarding the howitzer barrel, but tube ring was not one of them.

“Put the lieutenant on.” I was never sure what Swede was up to.

I said to the lieutenant, “Sir, I understand there is a problem on Gun 2.”

“The tube ring, it doesn’t sound exactly right to me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The gun corporal called me over, well anyway he had me listen as he tested the tube and I agree the ring is off.”

“Sir, which test did he do?”

“He did the one where you hit the tube and listen.”

“I see, sir.”

“… and it was off.”

“I understand, sir. What would you like to do?”

“It’s bad enough I think we should take the gun down for the night. Check it out in the morning.”

“To be clear, sir, at your direction I am taking Gun 2 out of service for the night.” I did not want any doubts about who made the decision.

“Good, I think it’s best.” He sounded relieved.

At first light I hunted up Swede. “Tube ring?”

“Sure,” he said, producing from his pocket a small brass hammer used in making adjustments to the howitzer aiming and control mechanisms. He walked over to the tube, placed his ear to the sur­face, and gave it a ping. He held the hammer delicately between his thumb and forefinger. In his enormous fingers it looked like a toy.

I said, “And last night?”

“The lieutenant had his ear up against the tube for five minutes while I tapped away. I took him over to Gun 4 to listen, and then on over to Gun 5 so he could compare. I kept asking him: Can you hear it now, sir?”

“What was he supposed to hear beside you banging on the gun?”

“I don’t know, but before long he could hear it.”

“You know, Swede, I really took your gun out of service. Had to. You’re lucky we didn’t get a fire mission last night. Christenson thinks it’s hilarious but we have to clear the paper­work. I’m calling it maintenance.”

The word spread and with it an outbreak of tube ring disease. Two nights later it was Gun 4, and the next night Gun 5 fell victim to the epidemic. At morning for­mation First Sergeant Stollberg said, “Leave the lieutenant alone.” Everyone knew what he meant.

Once the lieutenant learned he had been made a fool, he came down hard on the gun crews. He called for useless main­tenance. He made detailed inspections of equipment he did not understand. The crews grumbled but took it. The lieuten­ant then took his vengeance one step too far. He made every crewman wear hats and shirts during the day, an insult to their dignity and a public embarrassment, when cutoffs and tennis shoes were the accepted fashion statement.

Night had just fallen when inside the FDC bunker we heard an explosion, too small for an incoming mortar or outgoing howitzer fire.

Curly got on the landline connecting FDC to the guns and guard towers., “You guys know what that pop was?”

Curly had been the FDC section chief when I arrived. Despite having built a competent operation he had one less stripe than the new guy and got pushed down. He didn’t take it well at first and I handled him badly, but eventually we got to be friends.

The landline was on speaker. “Tower 2 here. It wasn’t incoming.”

“Gun 5. Don’t know, but someone saw a flash over by Gun 4.”

Curly raised his voice into the handset. “Gun 4. What are you guys doing over there?” There was silence and Curly yelled, “Gun 4, answer.”

An anonymous voice came over the landline, “Maybe Gun 4 is on R&R.”

“This is Gun 4. Top just got here.” The voice lowered. “And he is hoppin’ mad. It was a grenade. Somebody fragged the lieutenant’s hooch.”

Curly said, “Anybody hurt? We need a dust-off?”


“Who did it?”

“Don’t know. Gotta go.” 

At formation the next morning the First Sergeant was the angriest I had ever seen him.  Top did not have the habit of using profanity, like some guys who couldn’t open their mouths without some form of the F word. Top swore selectively, and this was one of those occasions. He delivered an old fashioned Army dress down. “Come to attention.” Normally we stood at-ease at formation. “You’re going to hear what I got to say. In case you don’t know, some piece of shit threw a grenade last night. It’s lucky nobody got hurt. Whoever did this could have hurt a lot of innocent people. Some poor fuck walking by all of a sudden’s got a face full of shrapnel. Whoever did this, I know I’m looking at you right now out there. I’ll tell you to your face, you are a fuckin’ coward. In the middle of the night popping a fragmentation in the middle of my firebase, my gun crews. I am going to find you, and I will have your balls, your dick and your ass in a meat grinder. Any of you get the idea this is cute or it’ll make you a hero—I will shoot you myself I catch the next guy that pulls this.” Top walked away leaving the formation at attention. He hadn’t said a word about the lieutenant.

The lieutenant was shaken but unharmed. The perpetrator was never found, and frankly nobody looked that hard, including Top. An uneasy quiet settled on the battery. The battery commander took the lieutenant off the guns, leaving him minimal responsibilities. The lieutenant spent his days drifting from place to place with a manufactured smile on his face, and avoiding the gun crews. 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 turned out to be a decent fellow when he wasn’t in charge of anything. When he left the battery he departed a lonely and sad figure.