After making a steep and quick approach (avoiding rockets) to land in Vietnam, we were transported in a bus with steel mesh covering the windows to Long Binh Army Relocation Center outside Saigon. The screens were to prevent grenades from being thrown in. Welcome to Vietnam. I do not remember much of my time there other than it being low key, and getting away from the barracks to avoid mundane details. From there I went by Air Force cargo jet to Nha Trang, headquarters of First Field Force. Two days later I went again by cargo jet to Phan Rang and the Fifth Battalion of the Twenty Seventh Artillery. There I got my M16, combat helmet, flak jacket and ammo magazines; and went on to Phan Thiet just off the South China Sea, 100 miles northeast of Saigon. I caught a Huey out to B Battery at a firebase called LZ Sherry about seven miles northeast of the airfield. The firebase was in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by three rows of concertina wire, two strands on the bottom and one row on top
The first thing you see on landing is a welcome sign with the letters for LZ Sherry highlighted with the fins of mortars that had landed inside the base. Oh Boy!!
First Sergeant Durant, the senior NCO of the firebase assigned me to Gun 6 on the south perimeter of the firebase close to the helipad. Right there outside the wire was a platoon of South Vietnamese infantry, settled with their wives and kids in sandbag hooches.
At Gun 6 parapet I met the guys on the crew. A couple were short timers who left shortly after I arrived. The gun crew chief was new in country and had just graduated from NCO School at Fort Sill; he was still learning the ropes himself. He told me to stow my gear in his bunker and that I would stay with him for a short period.
When a bunker opened up, I moved in with a short timer who had less than three weeks to go in Vietnam. He was in a mode of: I’m not going to take any more chances and let the cherries do it. When that first mortar attack came I heard the explosions and a siren going off, but I had no idea what to do, so I waited for him to lead the way. I was lying there, and he was lying there. Finally he yelled out to me to get my “cherry ass” on the gun, while he stayed in his bunk. I threw on my boots and ran outside into a brightly lit night, the guns firing, the Quad-50 machine guns and the Duster 40 mm cannons blasting away. I remember tripping halfway to the gun. When I got there I still did not know what the heck I was supposed to be doing. From what I remember someone started passing ammo rounds to me, which I then handed along to the loader. By this time firing was pretty much near the end. It was a very surreal moment for this cherry ass.
Life on Gun 6
There were the daily duties of setting up ammo, installing fuses on the ammo, and cleaning the gun. Setting up the ammo you uncrated the shell and powder canisters, then put them together to store in the ammo bunker or in the quick access cabinets closer to the gun. There were four shell types: high explosive, white phosphorous, illumination and beehive (anti-personnel). The canisters held seven bags of gunpowder attached by a string, each with a number from 1 to 7. For now you left all seven bags in the canister, but you did install the fuses, either a time fuse or impact fuse. You cleaned the gun every day, by rodding out the barrel to remove powder residue, breaking down the breach block to remove residue, and oiling the barrel and the breach block.
A fire mission started with humping the ammo: getting the right kind of shell and fuse for the mission and then pulling the correct number of powder bags out of the canister for the distance it had to fire. For the shortest missions Fire Direction called down “Charge 1,” which meant you took out the bags marked 2 through 7 and left in the bag marked with a 1 and a circle around it. For the longest missions you left in all seven bags.
The ammo humper handed the 33-pound shell to the loader, who shoved it into the breach opening of the gun barrel. The breach handle would move as a signal to the assistant gunner (AG) that the shell was properly seated in the barrel. The AG then set the range quadrant on the gun, the number of degrees up and down. The direction left or right was set by the gunner using aiming sticks out in front of the gun. Once everything was set the AG grabbed the lanyard and waited for the order to fire.
Sounds simple enough, but little things could always go wrong. I had been on the gun for a few weeks and had worked at different positions. During a close-in fire mission a canister jammed in the breach so that it would not seat properly in the barrel. We pulled the round out, got a new canister from an ammo humper who had just come on the gun, and loaded the shell into it. When the AG pulled the lanyard and the gun fired we knew from the noise and recoil it was a Charge 7 and not the Charge 1 it should have been. Our immediate concern was where the round had landed and were any friendlies hurt. Fire Direction calculated that the shell landed in the South China Sea five miles away, to our great relief. The gun sergeant got a good chewing out, which he was happy to repeat to the gun crew.
You couldn’t hardly blame the gun sergeant. Gun 6 had just lost three guys to rotation: one prior to my getting there, one that I bunked with for a short period of time, and another that left shortly thereafter. The gun was transitioning to a lot of new guys and the sergeant was working people out in different positions to determine who was going to go where.I did a lot of jobs in a short period of time: humping ammo, handing it to the loader, being the loader, and for a short period of time being the AG. I did not stay on any job for any length of time.
There was a situation while on the gun when I had an encounter with “Smoke” who was the staff sergeant in charge of the guns. He was fairly new in-country like me. The siren sounded at 6: 30 pm, which was the signal to wear flak jackets and steel helmets while outside until sunrise the next morning. A group of us were throwing a football without paying any attention to the siren. While chasing down a pass I happened to come within sight of Smoke. He yelled at me to come to him, at which time all the others quickly threw on their gear. Smoke chewed me out up one side and down the other in the middle of the guns. I guess he wanted to make an impression with the gun crews. He ordered me to wear my flak jacket and helmet day and night until he told me to stop.
As you can imagine the days were extremely hot and the gear was very uncomfortable. I had to perform all my daily duties with the gear on. During this time the gun’s truck had a tire going flat and I had to repair the tire. If you have ever had to dismantle a tire with a split rim wheel you know it is very hard work. I sweated profusely and my helmet kept falling off. Finally, a mechanic named Stuart in the motor pool came over to help me finish repairing the tire. Stuart and I became good friends during our time on the firebase. At this point I had enough of this and went to Smoke. I told him that I had learned my lesson, and could I please stop wearing the gear during the day. Smoke grinned at me and said, “What took you so long?”
A few times I went on convoys for supplies to Phan Thiet, to a large Army installation at LZ Betty. The trip was about ten miles: two miles over a dirt road leading from the firebase, and the rest of the way on a paved road to Phan Thiet. The dirt road was usually mined, and thus we had to mine-sweep its entire length. After we swept the road, and cleared any mines by exploding them, the convoy went on, but leaving behind guards stationed every three hundred yards and a Duster patrolling the road, all to prevent it from being mined again for the convoy’s return trip.
On this particular convoy I was one of those left behind on guard duty. Here I was on this isolated road in the middle of nowhere and I could barely see the guy on either side of me. All I have is my M16 rifle and several ammo magazines. I didn’t really feel all that scared because I grew up in the country and I was an avid hunter. I was used to being out in the woods alone with my rifle or my shotgun. Still I was new in country and felt like a sitting duck. I thought about snipers in the tree line behind me. What if something happens, what do you do? That’s when I decided to get off the road. I took the chance there might be a mine off the side of the road and went down and squatted into my hunting position, like white tail deer hunting where you get as low as you can and not be visible to the game. There I stayed until the convoy came back to pick us up a couple hours later. Sure, nothing happened. But the hours waiting for something to happen are still vivid.