Monthly Archives: January 2017

Jon Varat – Fire Direction Officer – Part Three

Vivid Memories

 I have not thought much about Vietnam since leaving there forty-five years ago. And it is only now that I am reading for the first time the many letters I sent home to my mother. What I remember is spotty and doesn’t fall into a cohesive narrative of any kind, but I have retained a number of vivid memories.

The Convoy

Two months into my time at Sherry we had to go on a convoy to Phan Thiet for supplies. A couple things are still vivid in my mind from that convoy. We had our flak jackets on and went out the back gate down that dirt road running east. We went through that little town where you had to make a right turn to get on the road going south to Phan Thiet. There was a huge bolder in the middle of the road at that intersection. That was not a happy situation. Two things happened. First one of our guys from one of the guns, who was a nice kid, stupidly forgot to bring his flak jacket. I was a little upset with him but I gave him mine. It did not make me very happy, but there we were. Second, because of the rock in the road we had to halt the convoy. I remember this as the day I got out with a bayonet and dug around in the dirt for landmines. Fortunately we did not find any. We were lucky the boulder was just to make life difficult for us, and not part of an attack.

Lt. Varat was in more danger than he realized. At that location one year earlier, almost to the day, a mine explosion had killed Paul Dunne and seriously wounded Jim Kustes.


I remember the two times I felt the most alone in Vietnam. The first was during monsoon season. I was on my midnight-to-three shift going around to the towers and guns. We were under a torrential rain and it was so black you could not see a foot in front of your face without a flashlight. I was out between the inner and outer perimeter doing my rounds slogging through water up to my knees. Thousands of miles from home, in the pitch black, walking across a flooded area up to my knees – I felt really alone. I have to admit I was also thinking about snakes at the time.

Then there was the week between Christmas and New Years. I was on R&R and had just arrived in Saigon on my way to Sydney. I picked Sydney for R&R because I wanted to see and speak English to western women who might like me, not girls I had to buy. I had Christmas Eve dinner in Saigon at our Army base there. I had a perfectly decent dinner, but I was literally by myself, sitting at a table at a Saigon Army base. I am Jewish but not real religious, so it wasn’t the significance of Christmas as a religious event. Americans celebrate Christmas as a holiday no matter what religion you are. Christmas Eve I always did something. We were the only Jewish family in my small town, so I would go out with my Christian friends. For me the loneliness was a social thing. I felt: Oh my god it’s Christmas Eve and here I am by myself in a strange place I am never going to be in again. I arrived in Sydney on Christmas day, and I was fine once I got there. I met a nice young lady, we hung out and celebrated the new year. I even went back in the spring to see her. It was that one lonely meal in Saigon that really sticks with me.

A Field Court Martial

I remember the court martial we held right there on the firebase. One of our guys was accused of raping a local villager. I was not involved in the case, but as one of the officers on the base the logistics for the proceeding were within my responsibilities. Because I was a lawyer in training it was of particular interest to me. I remember a white sheet was put up as a curtain to create a separate space for the proceeding. Hearing officers came in from the rear and we brought witnesses from the local village to the firebase to testify. After a proper examination the soldier was convicted.

What I remember most vividly is the testimony of one of the witnesses. He was asked the question, “Where do you live?”

He said, “The village nearby.”

He was then asked, “How far is that?”

His answer was, “Three klicks.”

I thought to myself: Why is this guy talking about “three klicks?” which happened to be just within mortar range of the firebase. I put two and two together and thought: This is not good. They know exactly the distance to our base.

Two Proud Moments

I became the full time Fire Direction Officer in December of 1970 when Bob Christenson became XO. I also remained the motor pool officer.

Varat in the Fire Direction Center
Varat in the Fire Direction Center

I remember two proud moments from that time.

We got a call in FDC to fire in support of ARVN forces who were in a heavy firefight. During the adjustment phase of the mission I asked the guy on our radio to hold on for a second, even though they were under fire. There was something wrong with the adjustments we were getting from the forward observer. It took me a minute to figure it out. Their forward observer was not adjusting our howitzer fire from the standard OT line (observer target line). He was doing it backward, from the target to the observer line. I was glad I hesitated, because if we had fired his adjustment we would have gone in the wrong direction and walked the fire back on them instead of the target. After that firefight was over, the general in charge of the group we were supporting came to our base and started to chew me out because we were so slow getting rounds out. I pointed out to him that if I had not hesitated there would have been a lot of dead ARVN forces. I explained that I had to take a minute or two to figure out the problem. I said I could understand they were under fire and needed the support, but it’s one thing to want support, and another to be blown to smithereens. I can’t remember that he backed off, only that he did not pursue the matter any further. Afterward I thought, Maybe I’ve done something in this war that’s a good thing.

This one involved Top, the First Sergeant. One day there were some women getting within mortar range of our perimeter. It looked like they were maybe collecting firewood, or maybe doing bad stuff. Top wanted to fire on them; he thought they were about to fire off a mortar. I just did not want to do it. We had a bit of a stand-off and I said: No, we are not going to fire on them. It turns out they were indeed just collecting firewood. It was one of those moments you’re not sure and you just had to make a judgment call, even though it ran against a more experienced first sergeant. It was the one time I really did pull rank.


Early in my tour I was in a hooch out by the guns, maybe with Bob Christenson. I remember standing in front of my hooch one morning and hearing a shot on the base. That’s not good. I was on my way to see what had happened when someone came over and told me they had just shot a cobra. I continued over to have a look. It was a BIG snake, one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in my life.

Once I became full time FDO I moved into the little room at the back of FDC. In case I was needed for a fire mission I’d be on duty. I remember I had a Make Love Not War poster on the wall some girls had sent me. I am a very heavy sleeper, very little wakes me up. But one night I wake up thinking: What is this? I look down and there’s a huge rat running across my leg. That made for my least favorite night at Sherry.

I’ll never forget the cockroaches, how big they were. I joked that one day I took off my steel pot helmet to kill one, and it started pulling on the other end.

A Catch-22 Story

I always thought Catch-22 was a joke of a novel. Until I went to Vietnam.

New people were typically helicoptered into Sherry with their gear and duffle bags. We had to search their duffle bags to make sure there were no drugs, no knives and no guns. But drugs made it through in other ways. Some people had girlfriends who sent letters with LSD on the envelope or on the letter paper, with the spot marked “Lick Here.” The drug issue was so serious we had to send some guys back to the rear, because you could not rely on them. It was frustrating to me and to lots of other guys that somehow the guys doing drugs got the reward of going to the rear where it was safer. But what could you do?

We got one new guy with a serious addiction, who was now on our base without access to drugs. In the middle of the night in one of the hooches he went into withdrawal and was having seizures. I ended up sitting on his chest and holding down his arms to keep him from harming himself or anybody else. A very vivid memory. I asked the guys to call for a Medevac. They called and were told unless we were under attack they could not send a Medevac. I thought, I cannot sit on this guy’s chest all night. He was in an extreme situation and dangerous to others. I did the Catch-22 thing. I said to our guys, “OK, wait ten minutes. Then call back and tell them we are under attack and they need to send a helicopter.” No questions asked and we got our helicopter. And that’s how we got rid of this guy.

Cri Du Coeur

Letter home dated February 24, 1971

Not much new here. Colonels and generals are impressing me with their stupidity more each day. I cannot wait to be free again. Not all prisons are wrought of stone or iron. Some are in green cloth and bordered in barbed wire.

I wrote that in response to the time a general came by and wanted to do an inspection. He particularly wanted to inspect the paperwork in the motor pool. He found it wanting and chewed me out. I was really pissed, not because I was chewed out for the paperwork, but because at the time our requests for ammo were being ignored. I thought: You got to be kidding me. You care about the motor pool paperwork, even though all the necessary work is being done and the motor pool is doing fine. But you can’t get us the ammo we need.

The motor pool officer and his driver
The motor pool officer and his driver

Jon Varat – Fire Direction Officer – Part Two


I flew to Vietnam in July of 1970 on one of those charter airlines, I think Flying Tiger. The stewardesses as we called them in those days were older women with lots of experience, because these were prime assignments. If you flew to Vietnam and back that was pretty much your whole month’s work. They were very nice. We started in San Francisco, flew to Anchorage – saw lots of snow. Then to Kyoto, Japan – looked outside the plane and saw lots and lots of cars. At none of these places did we get off the plane. Then to Vietnam. I am looking down at this very green country and seeing smoke rising from different parts of thick jungle. I thought, This is the war, maybe artillery fire or planes dropping bombs. What the hell have I gotten myself into?

And then it was into Long Binh. I reported to the officer replacement camp at Long Binh, which was one of the worst places I’ve ever been in my life. The place was smelly, hot and awful. I thought: Oh my god, if this is the officer replacement facility, the rest of Vietnam is going to be really bad. It actually turned out to be the worst place of all in my entire tour in terms of physical comforts.

From Long Binh they sent me to Nha Trang, and then to Dalat to meet Lt. Colonel Tuck, the Group Artillery Commander. The bachelor officers quarters was an old French villa, now fit out with an abundance of sandbags and covered with Army ponchos where the place leaked. It had its own little charm. Dalat city was also quite pretty. At one time it was a mountain resort for Madam Nhu.

The glamorous Madame Nhu, also known as the Dragon Lady, was married to the brother and chief adviser to President Diệm. She was the de facto First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963.

Then I got sent down to battalion headquarters at Phan Rang. You’re sent down these various steps until you get your final assignment. I’m a second lieutenant in a line of new officers. The Vietnamese tailors had sewn artillery patches on my uniform that had crossed cannons. But the crossed cannons were very small, so they looked like crossed rifles. The guy in charge of replacement asked me to come forward because he thought I was an infantry officer and he wanted the infantry officers in the first rank. I had to point out to him that these were cannons, not rifles.


I thought I was going to end up being a forward observer, which was a little scary. I had heard that of the last twelve forward observers in our battalion, nine had been killed. That did not seem good. I was greatly relieved to be assigned to B Battery at LZ Sherry.

I helicoptered in on September 7, 1970. My one impression was that for a fixed firebase it seemed less primitive than I was expecting. It had a cement basketball court, and the hooches made of sandbags and ammunition boxes seemed not shockingly bad. I was welcomed by Joe DeFrancisco, the battery commander, and Bob Christenson, the Fire Direction Officer. I was assigned to be the full time motor officer, and part-time fire direction officer, with the idea I would eventually become the full time FDO after Bob.

    Captain Joe DeFrancisco
Captain Joe DeFrancisco
 1st Lt. Bob Christenson
1st Lt. Bob Christenson









I also had the job of walking around the perimeter between midnight and three in the morning checking on the tower guards. I thought all this was something I could handle. When my perimeter shift ended I remember going back to FDC and playing bridge when things were quiet. At five o’clock I’d go to sleep till eight or so, and then get up and do the motor officer thing during the day, and on occasion play a little basketball. I wrote in a letter home early in my tour that I liked the casual atmosphere at Sherry better than any other place I had been in the Army. That would hold true for my entire tour.

Making a friend
Making a friend

Eyes and Ears

I understood that our biggest threat was not a frontal assault, because we had twin 40 mm Dusters and Quad-50 emplacements on the perimeter. But we had to worry about sapper attacks, somebody sneaking through the wire during the night, on one of those nights when one of the local kids on their water buffaloes, supposedly tending their rice paddies, had somehow managed to put rubber bands around our trip flares. It was very important for the people in the towers to be awake and vigilant. I understood that the enemy was not going to tell us what night they were going to sneak in. The old saying was true that you had to be correct 100% of the time, whereas they only had to be right 1%.

Watching for the enemy

It was getting way too easy for people to come up to the barbed wire, put rubber bands around our trip flares or disconnect our Claymore mines and make us vulnerable to sappers. Security wise we would be a hell of a lot better off if we could clear another fifty yards out. If no one is supposed to be there, it would be easier to see them rather than letting the rice paddy work abut the barbed wire. We had a lot of trouble with local Vietnamese officials about clearing more space around our perimeter, but eventually got permission.

A bulldozer comes out to do the job. It takes a few days, and one of those days the bulldozer guys come in to have lunch. One of our guys is up in one of the towers and reports to me that he noticed somebody was walking by the front of the bulldozer. We go out there and find a Chinese anti-tank mine in front of the bulldozer. It is clearly Chinese because of the writing on it and the red star on the thing. Because of the keenness of our guy in the tower we avoided disaster. That’s your eyes and ears being more important than technology.

Watching the other guy too

We had some guys who were from the hills of Tennessee. They were nice young guys, who were not very sophisticated. Then we had some guys from the inner cities. One night when I was still responsible for the perimeter towers, one of these kids from Tennessee – and they were kids just eighteen, nineteen years old, while I was twenty-five – came down from the tower to talk to me. He was unhappy and scared because the other guy in the tower with him, from the city, was smoking pot and getting high. He was afraid this guy couldn’t do his job, and that it was dangerous. He did not want to be in the tower with someone who was high as a kite. We ended up giving the guy an Article 15, because you had to have some discipline. These were the guys who were supposed to be protecting us, and I was not prepared to fool around with the safety of a hundred other people. We had a lot of perimeter technology such as radar and various ground sensor equipment. The alertness of guys in the tower was more important: eyes and ears. 

You Can Tell A Man By His Books

We got boxes of books all the time from Special Services. I would let the guys get their books first, because they took all the stuff I was not interested in anyway. Then I took all the history and philosophy books.

The books on Jon’s shelf were not likely to be fought over. They testify to a mind starved for stimulation of almost any kind, a mind carried to a neighborhood far from his Ivy League law school, to a world away from the premier LA law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, and to an entirely different universe from the professional companionship of Warren Christopher.

Jon’s Desk, the Venus de Milo looking on
Jon’s Desk, the Venus de Milo looking on

A sample of Jon’s books:

The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

War Between Russia and China, by Harrison E. Salisbury

My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr., by Coretta Scott King

The Czech Black Book by Robert Littell

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

America The Raped by Gene Marine

Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow by Alexander Kendrick

Three Short Novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

No Easy Victories by John Gardner

Prejudice and Race Relations by Raymond W. MacK

Yom Kipur

I want to give credit to the Army that it was always good about trying to accommodate people’s religious beliefs. By then I was not that religious a person, but I was raised in the Jewish faith by my pretty religious mother. I wrote to her in October, about a month after arriving at Sherry, that I was able to get to a few hours of services on Yom Kipur at Cam Ranh Bay. That was important to my mother. The colonel sent a helicopter out to Sherry to pick me up. The Army was very good about that sort of thing.

Jon Varat – Fire Direction Officer – Part One

Lt. Jon Varat at LZ Sherry
Lt. Jon Varat at LZ Sherry

From King to Peasant

I was in my second semester of law school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 when President Johnson issued the executive order ending graduate student deferments. My entire class got reclassified 1-A. A little more than a year later, two weeks before final exams for my second year in law school, I was about to be drafted. In the meantime, I had made a deal with the Army called the delayed option program. I enlisted to go to OCS and become an officer, but did not have to report for duty for three months.

Importantly for me that allowed me to finish my second year. And it allowed me to go west that summer of 1969 to work at O’Melveny & Myers, a major law firm in Los Angeles. All of a sudden things opened up for me in a way I never could have anticipated. Warren Christopher was the senior partner at the firm, and they put me on a project with him involving the Stanford Research Institute.

At this time Warren Christopher had just completed a term as Deputy Attorney General for President Lyndon Johnson. Later in his career he would go on to serve in the state department for two presidents: as Deputy Secretary of State for Jimmy Carter, and as the 63rd Secretary of State for Bill Clinton.

Chris, as he was known, had gone to Stanford law school and was asked to figure out a way to separate the research organization from the university. This relates to the Vietnam War because the university did not like its research institute being connected to the war. It turned out to be a very interesting legal project, one of many that summer. Just as formative for me, I thought I would like to have a career like his: sometimes in public service in Washington and sometimes in private practice back in LA.

In law school I turned out to be a good student. And I must have done some nice work for the firm, because before leaving O’Melveny & Myers for the service they were nice enough to say, We want you to come work for us. I told them I had a commitment of almost three years in the Army, then I’ve got to finish another year of law school and possibly a clerkship after that. They said: We don’t care. If it’s five years or six years, we want you. They really treated me like royalty, like I had never been treated before. At the end of the summer I went from there, where I was treated like a king, to basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood Missouri, where I was not treated like a king.

After basic I went to Ft. Sill for Advanced Individual Training, and then Officer Candidate School there. Just as I was starting OCS in January of 1970 I got a letter from Warren Christopher updating me on our work the previous summer. This guy who was very famous, very important and very busy, bothered to send me a letter at Ft. Sill. Now that is recruiting!

Searching the Soul

I got my commission in June 1970, and immediately my first orders were for Vietnam, which I was anticipating. I was a terminally serious kind of guy (and still am). When I got those orders I had not yet figured out whether I was a conscientious objector or not. I needed to figure out who I was and what I should do. If I was really a conscientious objector this was the time to say something.

I had some time off and went out to LA and stayed with a buddy who had been in Vietnam. He had gone to Yale law school and was in military intelligence for a couple years. I thought I needed to figure this out, so I bought a couple of books on conscientious objection. I knew the rule that selective conscientious objection was not good enough. You could not object to just a particular war like Vietnam, you had to be against all war. That was the law at the time and I knew the law and cared about it. I knew I was not a total conscientious objector because of the whole Hitler thing: if someone’s coming up the street to kill my family I am going to shoot you. I am probably one of the few people who sat on a beach in Santa Monica reading conscientious objection books trying to decide. I decided, No I am not a conscientious objector, so I’m going.

Another thing was important to me. I am a true believer in representative democracy. I feel that even if I lose elections and other people come along and ask things I don’t like but that are legitimate, then I need to do my duty. In the same way that if my guys win, I hope other people will do their duty. My own code says you have got to look in the mirror every morning and be OK with the guy looking back. I’ve tried to live my life that way. I did not like the war, but it was a legitimate decision for the U.S. to enter Vietnam. I did not like either side in the war, and I did not oppose or support the war. I was in the middle. It came down to my duty, so I went.