All posts by Ed Gaydos

Paul Stagg – Gun Crew / FDC – Part Four

The Missing Gun

I mentioned that the battery fired all five guns at the enemy battalion, but my old gun was designated Gun 6. The reason is because there was not a Gun 3 any longer. One night well before I arrived Gun 3 took a direct mortar hit that killed or injured the entire crew. The gun was so damaged it was taken out of service, and when it was replaced it went on loan to LZ Sandy, a sister heavy artillery battery to our north. The gun was used to shoot illumination and nighttime H&I, random perimeter harassment and interdiction fire.

Corporal Howard Pyle, age 20, died on Gun 3 August 12, 1969 in a late night mortar attack that also injured the rest of the crew. Earlier that day on Gun 2 in the small hours of the morning Theodus Stanley, age 21, died in a mortar attack that also severely injured crew chief Rik Groves and Paul Dunne. Paul would die three months later from a road mine.

Gun 3 came back to Sherry midway in my tour but did not go into its old parapet. That had become a kind of sacred ground and never held another gun.

Unwanted Visitor

One night in FDC there was a fire mission, and we had to use all of the guns to complete the fire mission. As we sent the adjustment data to the guns, my old Gun 6 called in and said the gun was out of commission. This was a very unusual circumstance, and the FDC officer wanted to know what in the hell was going on. The reply came back from Gun 6 that there was a cobra in the ammo bunker, and no one wanted to go into the bunker; and they certainly did not want to fire a rifle at the snake because of the shells. They tried to find the snake the next day but were unsuccessful. That crew was apprehensive about entering the bunker for some time.

Snakes were often on the firebase, especially during monsoon season because our firebase was slightly elevated above surrounding rice paddies and had drier ground. The two most common snakes were cobras and the banded krait, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. Usually they did not survive long.

Banded Krait
Banded Krait

Party Hooch

Charlie Snider and I became really good friends and decided to build our own hooch and bunk together. This process took several weeks with help from the FDC crew and others. We mixed concrete for our floor slab and we used empty artillery ammo crates filled with sand bags to form up the walls. Our roof was interlocking sheets of metal used to make landing strips for helicopters and planes. We layered two rows of interlocking sand bags on the roof, topped off with a canvas tarp to keep the rain out. The exterior walls were a single row ofinterlocking sand bags. Counting the bags inside the ammo crates, the exterior walls and the roof, the number was around 1500. Charlie and I thought we had the best hooch on the firebase, and we bunked together the remainder of our time on LZ Sherry. Our hooch became the holiday party bunker.

Party Hooch
Party Hooch

Jeff Davis

I was in FDC at the time of the mortar attack that killed Jeff Davis on Gun 2 right outside the FDC bunker (where Theodus Stanley died just eight months earlier). A tower guard heard the WUMP WUMP of mortar rounds leaving their tubes, and then the warning siren went off and we heard the WHAM. Everyone was responding on the guns, and when it got quiet I heard there were injuries on Gun 2. I went out to see if I could help. When I got there Davis was lying in the bunker. He had severe head wounds and upper chest wounds around the neck. There was a new medic there, a tall, lanky guy with glasses. He had just come in to replace Big Doc who was nearing the end of his six-month field assignment. Doc was giving Davis mouth to mouth, trying to get some air into him because he was bleeding profusely from the mouth and face. The new medic was trying to get an IV in and was not being very successful. His hands were shaking, and he was very nervous. Meanwhile I was assisting another crewman who was peppered with shrapnel over his back, I suspect because he was not wearing his flak jacket. He was just standing around and looking in shock. He was walking wounded. The new medic was having such a hard time with the IV on Davis I asked Doc if he wanted me to try an IV in the other arm. He shook his head, paused CPR, and inserted the IV needle himself. A Medevac was on the way and when it arrived we loaded both crewman. Jeff Davis was still alive when he left the firebase. Later in FDC we heard that Jeff died on the way to Cam Ranh.

Big Doc earned a Bronze Star for his efforts that night (well deserved) and so did the new medic (go figure). It wasn’t long before the new medic rotated back to the rear. I do not know if it was because of his difficulty in this incident or they thought it best for him to spend some time in the rear first before he went back out to the field. His replacement came in to work with Big Doc, and he became known to us as Little Doc because they looked like Mutt and Jeff when they stood beside each other.

Little Doc Mason
Little Doc Mason

Agent Orange

I got to know Jeff when I was still on Gun 6.  He was in charge of tightening up the tangle-foot barbed wire around our perimeter and spraying herbicide to keep the vegetation down. I was the new guy assigned to him and spent a week with him out on the berm. He was very easy-going and relaxed, made me feel comfortable. I got to know him well enough to be sad when he died.

Later I found out the herbicide we sprayed was Agent Orange. I have battled two health conditions for the past ten years I believe are due to exposure to this chemical. One is trigeminal neuralgia which is a severe nerve issue on the right side of my face. I have had two gamma knife procedures to alleviate intense, shooting nerve pain. The procedures helped, but numbness and a tingling burning sensation may continue for years. The other is inclusion body myositis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the muscle cells and causes a slow, progressive and incurable muscle weakness. The treatment plan is to medicate with immunosuppressants that hopefully will slow its progression. Neither of these conditions does the VA recognize as related to Agent Orange. Therefore my first contact with the VA was discouraging and I said to hell with it!

Herbicide came to Sherry in 55-gallon drums in highly concentrated form with instructions to dilute 1:50. Crews at Sherry typically ignored the dilution instructions and took the chemical directly from the barrel, using hand sprayers or a jerry-rig sprayer attached directly to the barrel. They likewise ignored guidelines to spray only in low wind conditions and never after 10:00 AM.

Paul Stagg – Gun Crew / FDC – Part Three

Pack Extra Pants

My flight experiences in country were more exciting than I wanted them to be. I am still new in country flying on a C123 cargo plane going from Phan Rang to Phan Thiet. Just after takeoff there is a huge bang, and the plane veers immediately to the left. Change my pants! Something is wrong with the left engine. I don’t know exactly what is happening, but the pilot reengages the turbo boosters I’m guessing. We finally level out and return to the airbase.

Another thrill comes on a trip on a Huey helicopter from the LZ to Phan Rang. We are approaching the airbase for a landing, but the pilot is having trouble bringing the chopper down because of a hydraulic issue. The crew chief yells for us to hold on tight as the pilot initiates the autorotation procedure.  I am not sure what is happening, but the rotors are slowing down and I cannot hear the engine, neither of which are good. We hit the runway with several bounces, and the chopper finally stops in an upright position on the tarmac. Change my pants again!!

The thrills just keep on coming. I am returning from Phan Rang on a Chinook helicopter after a three-day pass.  The Chinook is flying at a low altitude when suddenly there are pinging noises and holes appearing in the floor. The crew chief yells into his headset and the chopper gains altitude quickly. Change my pants again!!! I ride the rest of the trip to Sherry sitting on my flak jacket and steel pot.

After all this I decide not to leave the firebase until my final ride home, even not going on R&R.

Swede

Excerpt from Seven In A Jeep by Ed Gaydos

For the moment Swede was a corporal. Over a 12-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. Swede gave no thought to regulations, and he worried even less about getting caught. 

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 mounted 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 played poker with the Swede and I was one of the few who came away from the table with some money in my pocket. He played a lot of hi-low games, which are split the pot games where you can have two winners. I would always try to go the opposite way that the Swede went, unless I had a pat hand. I came out one night with close to 200 bucks. That money lasted me a long time. I played with him a few more times and then I decided I wasn’t going to stretch my luck and I just walked away. He kept getting after me to play again so he could win the money back.

I remember going on a convoy to Phan Thiet with the Swede. He’s inside a brothel on a bad street, and I’m the new guy guarding the jeep outside with my M16 and ammo looking all around to make sure nobody’s coming up on me.

FDC

After just a couple of months I was summoned to the fire direction center (FDC) along with Charlie Snider from Gun 2. I knew Charlie from artillery training at Ft. Sill. We came in country together and ended up together at Sherry.

Lieutenant Anstett, the fire direction officer, said he was assigning us to FDC. He said he was short of fire direction crewmen, and after reviewing all the personnel files he wanted me and Charlie. In high school I took algebra, plane geometry, solid geometry, trigonometry and calculus. I did not take any higher math courses in college because college math was a breeze after all of that. And I have always scored high on aptitude tests, the college SAT for example. I assumed it was the same kind of thing with Charlie’s personnel records.

Charlie and Paul in FDC Picture by Bob Christenson
Charlie and Paul in FDC
Picture by Bob Christenson

I don’t know about Charlie, but I did not want to go to FDC because it had a reputation of being snobbish, and the guys thinking they were better than others. They were mostly college graduates and did not associate with gun crew members at all. They were in their own little world. We told the lieutenant that we preferred to stay on our guns. He immediately informed us that we didn’t have a choice and for Charlie and me to get our gear and report to FDC.

We had to leave our gun bunkers and relocate into bunkers assigned to FDC. As soon as we stored our gear we went into FDC to meet the guys there.  The only names I remember out of everyone were Mac, Fred, Kim Martin, and Mike Leino. Mac and Fred were short timers we were replacing, and they did our training. We learned all the duties in FDC by progression, slowly but surely. The first thing we learned was how to handle the three radios: the call signs, radio codes, the correct radio language, the radio alphabet and how to handle fire missions. There were two crews manning the FDC bunker 24 hours a day. Each crew worked 12 hours on and 12 off. Every two weeks the crews shifted between day and night shifts. Just as you were getting adjusted to days or nights, you had to shift.

All fire missions came in by radio from the tactical operations center in Phan Thiet.From this location we received the type of mission and target map coordinates. After this information was received, a gun or several guns were alerted to the upcoming fire mission. With this information we were taught how to plot this data.

FDC Radio Jockey
FDC Radio Jockey

There were two tables, each with a large grid map of the surrounding area with the firebase located in the center. One table contained the primary chart and the other the backup chart for a double check system. Each table was manned and as the target data came in it was plotted on the two charts. From this each plotter would determine the powder charge (1-7), direction or azimuth, and distance or range of the target from the battery. Once ready, the person on the primary chart would call out the data to the person at the computation tables. The person on the second chart would yell check if he agreed. If not, you would have to start all over again until each person had the same data. There were also two computation tables for a double check system. The two men at the computation tables would compute the firing settings for the guns using specialty slide rulers and charts. Again, there was a primary table and a backup table to double check the information. The person at the primary table controlled the guns by calling out the necessary adjustment data via the battery radio system: type of shell, type of fuse, powder charge, direction, elevation, and firing sequence.

Tools of the Trade
Tools of the Trade

The FDC officer oversaw all the operations and, when the guns were ready, issued the fire command, which was relayed to the guns by the primary computation person. I performed each of these duties at any given time during my tour in the FDC. I have to admit that I found this assignment challenging, interesting and satisfying.

B Battery had 105 mm howitzers, the lightest and most responsive of the artillery arsenal in Vietnam. The gun crews and FDC at Sherry were a well-oiled operation, capable of putting rounds in the air two minutes from the initial call for fire. It was no wonder the men in the field preferred calling for help from LZ Sherry when they had a choice of firebases.

It is completely in character that Paul found a home in FDC as one of its core professionals, he was always accurate and blinding fast. Charlie too became an anchor within the FDC operation, possessing an almost supernatural feel for the equipment, tools and electrical machinery essential to the operation.

Fire Direction Control had the reputation of being the most difficult of the military specialties. Its training schools were highly selective, and even then experienced a significant drop out rate. Paul and Charlie, pulled without ceremony from their guns, learned through immersion by way of their innate capacities and a conspicuous pride in doing a good job.

Night and day we fired on targets for the South Vietnam Army and American forces in our area of operation, a seven mile radius around the firebase. Fire missions were too numerous to recall but there is one that I vividly remember. We were aware through intelligence reports that an enemy battalion of around 600 troops was operating near our firebase. We were a total of about 120 men at full strength, and we were rarely at full strength. We went on high alert for a possible ground attack, which if it came would be at night beginning with a mortar attack. One day a forward observer in a spotter plane caught the battalion in the open and called in the coordinates. In the FDC we immediately alerted the full battery and within minutes were ready to fire. One gun fired a marking illumination round and when the FO indicated we were on target the full battery unloaded under a FIRE FOR EFFECT command, all five guns firing as fast as they could until told to stop. As we fired, the FO made minor adjustments, which we computed and sent to the guns. Finally the END MISSION command came. The FO surveyed the area and indicated there were a great many casualties he could see on the ground. The entire battery was quite charged up. Later, the intelligence report revealed the battalion had moved out of our area. I especially remember the relief we all felt on this particular occasion, and I am reminded of the constant anxiety we lived under of being attacked by an overwhelming ground force.

Paul Stagg – Gun Crew / FDC – Part Two

LZ Sherry

 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!!

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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.

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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.

Smoke

Smoke

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?”

Convoy

 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.

Paul Stagg – Gun Crew / FDC – Part One

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Two Broken Bones

Out of high school I got a football scholarship to Shenandoah College. I was a starter on defense and on special teams. I was looking forward to the next football season when the players under scholarship were told the football program was disbanding. The school was converting from a two-year junior college to a four-year school, and all funding was going to that transition. But I wanted to play football, and through my high school coach got an invitation to walk on at the University of Richmond, a private university and very expensive. Being the oldest of eight children my parents could not afford to help so it was my baby: I needed to earn a scholarship.

I played defensive back and was one of the fastest guys on the team. Then that first semester I broke my collar bone. I was healing pretty well, but I came back too soon and a second break on the same collar bone in the same place ended my shot at a scholarship. I could not afford the second semester and did not have the time to gather the funds, so I dropped out and went to work full time. You know what happened. August 12, 1969 at Goochland Courthouse, Virginia I boarded a James River Bus to downtown Richmond where I reported to the military induction center. I was 19 years old.

Bitter Sweet Christmas

I met Linda at my seventh grade graduation ceremony. She went to a different elementary school and came to the ceremony with one of my best friends. Back then elementary school went to seventh grade, and high school began at eighth grade. We knew each other in high school and first started dating in the 11thgrade. She went to college at William and Mary here in Virginia, and I attended Shenandoah College. We still saw each other that first year of college. When I went to the University of Richmond and then began working full-time we saw each other more often. We were pretty much committed to each other at that point. When I got drafted I went down to William and Mary and told her. She was a little emotional. During basic training at Fort Benning she visited me twice, one of the times with my mother for graduation. From Fort Benning I went straight to Fort Sill for artillery training.

Before going to Vietnam I got a 30 day leave over the 1969 Christmas holiday. While at home I bought a diamond engagement ring and on Christmas Eve at Linda’s home I gave her the wrapped present. She opened it and immediately jumped up and ran to her parent’s bedroom to show them. She didn’t say yes or no, but she was so excited I was pretty sure it was a yes.

I remember a popular song playing a lot on the radio. “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul and Mary. It was certainly apropos for my situation.

Two and Out

I volunteered for field artillery during basic training. My thinking was that being a draftee I was definitely headed for Vietnam and likely to be in a combat branch. So it was which of the combat branches would you like? Artillery was something that interested me, and I thought it was better than being a jungle bunny. A lot of guys were putting down transportation, logistics and that kind of thing to avoid a combat branch. Most of those guys got combat infantry anyway.

We took a bunch of tests the first couple weeks of basic, and I guess based on my scores the Army offered me Vietnamese language training and helicopter school. Helicopter required a full six-year commitment as I remember, and language school at least four, I know it was more than two. Linda and I had plans when I got out, so I declined both offers. It was a very quick decision. Two years and I’m out of here.

Fort Sill

 A sergeant came into our barracks and asked for volunteers for truck driver training to drive the deuce-and-a-half and five-ton trucks that hauled artillery pieces to the firing range. Truck driver school was one week, and then assimilation back into artillery training. When I was a platoon leader in basic training at Ft. Benning I did not have to pull guard duty or KP, and here it was the same for the truck drivers. I grew up on a farm and I loved to drive tractors and trucks, so it appealed to me, with the added bonus I would not have to pull guard duty or KP. So off I went into a separate barracks with the other driver volunteers.

That Faraway Look

On the way to Vietnam we stopped for refueling in Anchorage, where I remember the frigid walk to the terminal in jungle fatigues. At another refueling stop in Tokyo our plane landed about the same time another plane landed from Vietnam. We were all in one big room: new guys on our way to Vietnam and veterans coming home. We were separated by a kind of portable fence that was about three feet high. As the Vietnam vets were gathering in their section of the room, we were gathering at our end, and that’s when the Nam veterans started giving us a hard time and taking quite a delight in it. “We are on our way home, and you’re going to Vietnam. You cherries got 365 days to go.” That was the first time I heard the word cherry, I just didn’t understand what that meant. I guess I found out soon enough as I transitioned into Vietnam. Others of the vets were quiet and kept to themselves, and they were probably the combat veterans. I’m sure the harassment was from the REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers)and not from the combat guys. You could tell the field combat vets because they had that kind of faraway look.

Mike Fox – Gun 1 Crew

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Lucky To Be Puny

I got drafted September 1969. I was twenty-three. I would have been there in 1966 but I couldn’t pass the physical on account of kidney problems. I finally got an induction letter to show up in Cincinnati for a physical and I passed that one. The Marine Corps was in there and this corporal was picking people to be drafted into the Marines. He got the guy in front of me and the guy behind me. He must have thought I was too puny because I only weighed about a hundred and thirty pounds.

I went straight to Ft. Dix for basic. They test you for everything and ask you what you want to do. I put down artillery because I had a real close friend in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division down in the Mekong Delta. He was on the 155mm howitzer split trail. He was one of my good friends. I said if he’s in artillery I’ll put down artillery too. So they took me. I also put down Vietnam, and they sent me to Germany.

Worth the Risk

When I got in country I was put in Service Supply for the 27th Artillery Regiment in Phan Rang. We stayed in those old wooden billets that the 101st Airborne built in 1966. You went to work at seven in the morning and got off at four in the afternoon. When we got off at night this guy had an eight-track tape of The Grass Roots. All night long he would play “Sooner or Later” and all these other hits of The Grass Roots. Over and over he just left that eight-track on. In the morning we did police call looking for cigarette butts. You had to have your boots polished and uniform pressed. I had this crap over in Germany and didn’t want it.

After a couple of weeks I said enough of this shit, and I went to the battery commander and said, “Sir, I want to go out on the guns.”

He said, “You want to go out on the guns?”

“Yes, that’s what I was trained for.”

He said, “Okay. I’ll see what I can do for you.”

I told the guys back in Service Supply I’m getting’ the hell out of here. They said you’re crazy, man, you could get killed out on those guns. I said that’s the risk I’ll take because I sure as hell don’t want to do this stateside shit over here.

“Now You’re a Combat Veteran”

Two weeks after I got to Sherry on March 6 we took a recoilless rifle attack. The 75mm recoilless was a crew-served weapon that fired a twenty-pound shell capable of penetrating four inches of armor. A wicked, wicked weapon. The thing about a recoilless rifle is they first shoot a .50 caliber tracer round, and as soon as they see the arc of that tracer they fire the big round right behind it. As soon as you see that tracer you know the round is coming. It’s not like a mortar that comes in on a high loop and throws a shrapnel pattern in a 360 degree circle. A recoilless rifle throws most of its momentum forward when it explodes because of the velocity and low angle of it coming in. They are a lot like a 105 howitzer shooting low angle.

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Viet Cong loading a Chinese 75mm recoilless rifle. The photo was discovered by the 5th Royal Australian Regiment during a bunker search in 1967.

I was in a little empty bunker by myself, because I had just come onto the gun, when I heard the first two rockets come in and the siren. I jumped up and ran out towards the gun. As I was running past the ammo bunker it took a direct hit. There was a big yellow flash, a quick bang, and sand went everywhere. I went back and started getting ammo out of the bunker.

By that time they were firing the shit out of Gun 1. We already had the time fuses set and the gun at 060 quadrant for low fire. Everything on that base opened up like a Mad Minute. Then you couldn’t tell what was incoming from what was outgoing. That’s when I looked up and seen that tracer coming at us. I thought it was going to hit me right between the eyes. Sergeant Smith grabbed me by the neck, threw me down and fell on top of me. We all thought it was going to hit in our parapet, but it hit the Gun 2 shower instead. We got back up and started shooting again. I looked over and saw flames shooting up on Gun 3. I thought, oh shit that’s probably killed everybody. And then just that quick it was over and everything got quiet. Sergeant Smith was real comical when it was all over. He said, “Gentlemen, you are now combat veterans.” I laughed at that.

Sergeant Smith
Sergeant Smith

The S3 Operations Daily Staff Journal for March 7, 1971 reported that commencing at 2235 hours the night before, LZ Sherry received three enemy rockets of unknown caliber and seven 75mm rounds, four of which landed inside the battery. Sherry’s Q4 anti-mortar radar acquired the source of the attack at 2245 hours, resulting in artillery fire upon the target. Return fire ceased at 2259 hours. In all the battery expended forty-three high explosive rounds. Four U.S. personnel were wounded in action (slightly the report notes).

The report does not include the ammunition shot by the two Quad-50s, the two Dusters twin 40mm cannons, the machine guns in the towers, or the many illumination rounds always lofted during an attack. A great deal of hot lead flew out of Sherry when it was under attack.

The strikes on Gun 3 ammo bunker and Gun 2 shower are well documented. This is the first account of what happened on Gun 1.

The next morning we looked at the damage to our ammo bunker. The recoilless round went through high on the bunker wall and exploded on the inside. We only had about a hundred rounds in the bunker that didn’t explode. It’s amazing it didn’t set the rounds off, I still can’t get over that to this very day. Where the round came in at the top, we normally had ammo stacked up that high to the brim. It was low that day. We was supposed to get ammo that day, and we didn’t get it. If we’d of had ammo up there it would have took that firebase out. And we had about ten rounds of white phosphorous and beehive right out front in the door of the bunker, and it looked like someone took a twelve-gauge shotgun and shot holes through the brass canisters where the shrapnel penetrated. They didn’t go off either. It was just pure fate, is what that was.

Gun 3 Ammo Bunker
Gun 3 Ammo Bunker

Two recoilless rounds hit Gun 3 ammo bunker. One hit to the right of the doorway and ignited a pile of powder charges on the ground. The other passed through the door of the bunker and out the back wall, missing the ammo inside and exploding in an empty area behind the bunker. This second round may have been armor piercing with a delayed fuse.

It’s a wonder the round that hit Gun 3 ammo bunker wounded only four guys. It went right into the side of the ammo bunker near the door and caught fire to the powder bags laying on the ground. My good friend Gerald Gideon was hit on the knee, and a lieutenant got it on the side of his leg up along his hip. Gideon was ready to come home; he had been there like eighteen months and told me the firebase got hit every Saturday night.

The war was supposed to be winding down, but ol’ Charlie was pretty good and maybe just pure luck that he made direct hits on two of our ammo bunkers from that far out. We found the recoilless canisters. I was going to make a lamp out of one of them. I tried to take it home, but had to put it in a bin when I got to Cam Ranh Bay, and I’m sure an Air Force guy got it.

Recoilless canisters recovered from launch site
Recoilless canisters recovered from launch site

Two days later we took mortar rounds down along where Murder Incorporated was set up. The mortars came in along that perimeter there and I think three guys got wounded.

The S3 Operations Daily Staff Journal for March 9, 1971 reported that LZ Sherry received six 82mm mortars at 1740 hours and responded with fifty-four high explosive rounds and fifteen firecracker rounds. Three U.S. were wounded in action (slightly the report notes). Again the report does not include the supporting fire or illumination rounds.

We then had that Purple Heart ceremony a couple days later.

Gerald Gideon center
Gerald Gideon center

Sergeant Smith, the chief on Gun 1, I wish I would have put him in for a Bronze Star with V for valor, because he grabbed me around the neck and threw me down and fell on top of me that night. We all fell down because with that big yellow tracer coming at us we thought the round was coming into our gun pit. He fell on top of me, that was great valor, something you do in a hurry. Even though it didn’t hit, it was the thought.

General Brown came out on a Chinook helicopter to look at the damage, and of course when generals come out they always have gunships with them. We all had to stand at attention and he went down the gun sections and greeted everybody. I got my ass in trouble because I had zippers on my combat boots instead of the regular shoe strings. You took your regular shoe laces out and used them to tie in the zippers. That way instead of having to redo your laces every morning when you put your boots on, you could just zip them up. Guys would get them because when you had a fire mission you could just zip up your boots. They were super quick, but not regulation. The captain later on said something to Sergeant Smith who chewed my ass and told me you’re supposed to have regulation. They like to have everything regulation when a general comes around. After the general left and everything cooled down we all just put them back in again.

When It’s Dark Out

I can’t get over seeing that tracer coming at me when Sergeant Smith threw me down. I see that tracer every night when I go to bed, and those Gun 3 bunker flames in the air, and that round hitting beside our ammo bunker when I was next to it. That’s stuff you can’t forget. I don’t notice it any other time of the day, but when it’s dark out I see that. Once I get up in the daytime it ain’t nearly as bad, but when it gets real quiet and dark it’ll come back to me sometimes. When July 4 fireworks come around that brings back LZ Sherry. It ain’t no big deal.

Close Call

fullsizeoutput_297aWe got a fire mission in broad daylight, which was unusual because most of them were at night. At the same time a Chinook is coming in, and he is really cranking with our new medic on board. The chopper starts taking sniper fire. The medic is sitting there and a bullet just missed his head. He was a lucky, lucky guy.

FO School

They asked anybody if they wanted to go to FO school, they had some slots open. I said I would go. I just thought it might be interesting. So I went to FO school up in Nha Trang in April of 71, me and another kid named Lee. You learned azimuths, and shrapnel patterns that they had displayed on a big wall. The worst shrapnel pattern was from the 122mm rocket, wicked terrible shrapnel when those things exploded. We took two or three rounds of 122 at Phan Rang when I first got in country. It was my second night and I had not even been to my unit yet, all of sudden these sirens went off and we had to run down into this big bunker, a big long trench with sandbags over it. The rockets hit on the far side of the airbase and I am glad they did not come close. They are wicked, wicked weapons.

We were supposed to be up there a week but were only there for four days. Lee flunked out, and I barely passed. When I got back Lieutenant Kanak said do you want to go out and work with the ARVNs and call in artillery? I said hell no, I didn’t want no part of the ARVNs.

Long, Cold, Wet Night

I had to do illumination shooting one night. Gun 1 was the illum gun that night. The ARVNs called in and they were guarding a bridge and they were being probed and they wanted illum around them all night. It was pouring down rain and I was the only guy up on Gun 1. I shot an illum round about every fifteen minutes. You could see it coming down real slow beneath its parachute way out there. It was an eerie, eerie thing to see floating down in the darkness. It only took one guy to handle illumination. We already had the quadrant and deflection set, so it didn’t take a whole gun crew. All night it just rained and rained and rained. I’d go sit in the little gun hooch there by the radio, and every fifteen minutes or so go out and sump another round into the gun and fire it off. I took a picture of all those canisters the next morning. And you’d see the gooks come out to hunt those parachutes for the silk.

Rituals on Gun 1

Every night we went around the perimeter and raked the sand smooth, so if anybody tried to probe your perimeter you could see the footprints the next morning. As it got dark I liked to get me a cup of Kool-Aid or coffee in my metal Army cup – I couldn’t stomach that stinkin’ water – and I would go set on the bunker of Gun 1. There was an ARVN mortar unit somewhere that every night would shoot for ten or fifteen minutes. You could hear that WUMP every time one of the rounds hit. They did it like clockwork, and I would listen to them work out. I’d hear that KABOOM, KABOOM, KABOOM. It was just indiscriminate fire.

Then I’d look out toward LZ Betty for flashlights or movement. Betty had a big tower searchlight that you could see all the way from Sherry. That was a free fire zone you could shoot anywhere into, unless the province chief called down coordinates where you couldn’t shoot. But I’d see flashlights and movement out there. (The battery fired on movement only when it was within mortar range of the firebase.)

The night at LZ Sherry was a wakeup because you’re on edge and you never know when something is going to happen. It’s that adrenaline. It can happen so quick, and stop that quick. You’re a sittin’ duck out there with nowhere to go. It was really bad at the end because you had no American infantry. You’re relying on six 105s, two Quad-50s and two Duster twin 40s on the perimeter. I was kind of gung ho at first because nothing was happening, and then all hell broke loose the night of March 6.

When daybreak came it was my job to tear down the breechblock. We’d punch all the bores with solvent and check it with a bore sighting board. I would rebuild that breechblock and make sure it functioned real good because of all the dust and the grime out there. We always kept that gun in A1 shape.

 Starlight Scope

View through a starlight scope
View through a starlight scope

I wish I would have taken a picture of the starlight scope in the far tower facing the mountains. I only looked through it one time. I pulled guard duty up there one night for about four hours. I turned the toggle switch to turn that big star light scope on and I could not believe it. It was two o’clock in the morning and it looked like Saturday afternoon. It was wavy looking, you know like how you see heat waves coming off the concrete in the summer. God, there was no way Charlie could sneak up on you with the starlight scope.

Sobering Demonstration

Concertina wire at Sherry
Concertina wire at Sherry

A Chieu Hoi sapper came out with a MACV major, and he put on a display of going through our wire. We had triple concertina wire and trip flares. He just took two pieces of bamboo and he went through all of our perimeter wire like it was nothing. He was with the 306th North Vietnamese sapper battalion, which was up around Da Nang. Through the interpreter he said he had brothers fighting on the side of the south. He did not want to fight against them, so he Chieu Hoi’d over.

Lizards, Rats, Beetles, Cockroaches, Centipedes, and Invisible Bugs

When I first got to Sherry I slept in this little bunker dug into the ground. When I was laying there I had a flashlight and I heard this chirping noise. I shined the flashlight and here’s these damn big lizards on the wall. There was a window at ground level covered with a piece of mosquito netting. As I lay there trying to sleep these rats came past my window. You could see their silhouettes through the mosquito netting, piles of them. I don’t know who got the idea, but we’d take a bar of soap, pull the lead out of an M16 round and pack it full of soap. With that guys would blow a rat to pieces. Thirty-four hundred feet per second is what an M16 round will do.

There was a big well by Gun 1. We would take 40 mm Duster ammo canisters, put them in a canvas sling and drop them down in there and fill them with water for our shower barrel. You’d look down in that well and there’d be dead rats floating in it where they drowned. Then the water you got was full of sand, so that after you showered with it and dried off you had to brush all this sand off with your hands.

I was walking out around the Gun 1 parapet and seen this massive orange-ish red looking centipede. He must have been ten inches long. I would have hated to get tagged by him because they got some serious venom in them. I went and got my bayonet and I chopped that damn thing up in pieces, while it was wiggling all over the place. I came back a couple hours later and that damn thing was totally gutted by red ants. They ate everything but the outer shell. I thought wow nothing lasts over here.

I came across a beetle so big I had to take a picture of it next to a Pepsi can to show how big it was. I thought it was a cockroach at first, but I ain’t never seen a cockroach that big.

The cockroaches would fly around, some an inch and a half long, to the point I’d have them land in my coffee at night. We always had to have somebody on the phone next to the gun in case a fire mission came down. I would sit next to the phone with the coordinates book, and the cockroaches would just swarm over the place. There were all these little lizards, which scared me at first but I got used to them. I would sit there for entertainment and watch the lizards sneak up on the cockroaches. They’d grab a cockroach almost as big as they were. It was a continual feast of them lizards gorging themselves on cockroaches.

We had about forty guys that got serious diarrhea. I wrote a letter to the Adjutant General saying we had a serious problem and nobody was doing anything about it. So they came out, made everybody shit in a little medical sample envelope. They took them all back and found out that the gooks who cleaned the trays in the mess hall did not have the water hot enough. There was bacteria on them trays if you ate in the mess hall. From then on they made sure the water was super-hot. I did not eat in the mess hall very often.

I got bit on the neck one night and I didn’t even feel it. My neck swelled up so big it felt like a golf ball, but I didn’t have no pain. I thought what in the hell tagged me to cause that kind of swelling? The medic looked at it and said if it gets any worse he’d call a Medevac. It was swelled for about a day.

It was a smorgasbord of insects out there. You had the food chain of everything eating something. I never got very much sleep and I never took my pants off. I always slept with my pants on because I could never get over all the cockroaches, lizards and the damn snakes. I’d take my jungle boots off, leave my socks on, and I’d put my boots on top of the bed and tuck that mosquito net around me. I didn’t want no scorpions and God knows what else crawling in on me. In case we ever had a fire mission I could just slip my boots on and run out. I probably averaged about four or five hours a night. Never got a full eight hours. And that damn heat.

Rat Skin Billfold

I don’t know what happened to my billfold, whether it was falling apart when I first got there. The prostitutes would come out twice a week to those culvert half shelters right outside the wire. They would bring watermelon and all kind of stuff that they made. I bought a billfold off one of them made out of rat skin. Believe it or not when I got paid I accidentally threw that billfold away with four hundred bucks in it. Me and a bunch of guys went out to the trash dump, that big old pit outside the base where we dumped everything. We hunted through all that stuff and luckily we found it. I was only a Spec 4 and hated to lose all that money. I got the billfold back and I still have it in my possession. It has medium brown hair on the outside. The gooks would make stuff out of anything. Of course they ate rats too.

Live Action

I went over to Gun 3 later and took a picture of the crew during an actual fire mission. I got up on top of the bunker and shot the picture. And you can see the shell in midair checking out of the tube, the next guy getting ready to throw another round in, and another guy bringing up the next round.

Attitude

Version 3

That sergeant with the deck of cards on his front teeth came in my bunker one day. Anybody who ever saw him smile could never forget him. I never had a chance to take a picture of him. Of all the pictures I didn’t take I’d love to have a picture of him. He seemed like a decent person. At the time he was Chief of Smoke. I remember a major came out to do a readiness test to see how good our firing battery was. He made that sergeant lay the whole battery again off his aiming circle, and he couldn’t do it. He was embarrassed because that was his job.

When he came into my bunker he saw this picture I had on the wall that a gook had painted of Snoopy laying on his dog house with the little bird, it’s painted on a kind of velvet. Snoopy is saying, “F___ it, just F___ it.” You know what the word is.

Version 2He said, “Why you got that on your wall like that?”

I said, “That’s my attitude about Vietnam.” He didn’t ask me to take it down. I still have it wrapped up. It’s just a killer picture.

And I got a patch that I bought that says VIET CONG HUNTING CLUB that I wore on my flak jacket. I still have that too, because they are very collectible.

Drugs

There was so much dope when I was there, it was really bad. Guys were buying pure heroin. It was so bad that one of my guys on Gun 3 who was in my bunker with me stayed high all the time. His nose would run. He couldn’t even do a fire mission. He would get so damned stoned if you had infantry out there he would put you in jeopardy. He was a very nice kid, but he didn’t give a shit. He had an eight-track player and he would send back to the states to the Columbia record club and they would send him all these eight-tracks. He would never ship them the money. He’d say what are they going to do, come over and confiscate them?  And Gun 2 had a guy that shot up with heroin. There was another guy on speed who wouldn’t sleep, and he looked like the walking dead, like a zombie. We had a medical officer come out trying to get guys into rehab. He said if you turned yourself in we would not prosecute you. Nobody would step up; they just did not trust the military. 

Sending a Message Vietnam Style

We teargassed a First Sergeant out there, he was a complete asshole. We threw a canister of CS gas in his bunker. He threatened to court martial everybody, and he went around the base trying to find hand grenades and stuff. He called a formation and said whoever did that is going to Leavenworth. He wanted you to have your boots polished and all that bullshit. We hated him.

There was a kid on Gun 1 with me – I got a picture of him, his first name was Kent – he threw the CS. Trouble was when that shit went off the wind brought it back over our gun. You talk about coughing and eyes burning. That First Sergeant he stayed with the Captain because he couldn’t go into that bunker for a week that CS odor was so bad. A week or two later he came back to his bunker and somebody had laid a frag grenade under his pillow. It changed his whole attitude; he didn’t screw with us no more. He got the point that this ain’t back in the rear, man. You’re out here and we got enough problems. You can’t screw with us with your stateside shit. That cleaned him up pretty good. I think that would put the fear of God in me too.

The Business End of a Howitzer

Right before I came home I took a bad concussion in my right ear from Gun 3, on one of the last fire missions we done. It was maybe a week before we stood down. We were shooting for an ARVN unit that was getting hit. We were shooting full Charge 7 and it was late in the night. The azimuth of the gun barrel was right over the top of the entrance to the ammo bunker. I went to get another round and as I came running out they fired that 105. I took the whole muzzle energy right in the head when that round left the barrel. It rung my ears for days. Within a week or so I was coming home. It’s bothered me my whole life.

Last Jeep

The last month at Sherry the fire missions really went dry. We had very little going on and we were short staffed. The last week we did not shoot our guns, so it felt like things were really winding down. You were supposed to have nine guys in a firing section, and we only had six.

Word came down suddenly that we were standing down. Everybody celebrated and they had one massive drunken party. I didn’t; I didn’t drink. I think it was on July 4. They got a big cooler from the mess hall full of water and ice, it must have been twelve feet long. Then these very strong guys were going around grabbing everybody they could find and throwing them in that tub. They went through all of the bunkers all over the base. If they found that you weren’t wet you were going into that cooler. I was laying in my bunker there on Gun 3 trying to get some sleep. They came in and grabbed me, one of ‘em had my feet and the other had me behind the arms, and they drug me outside. I seen they were heading for that big cooler and everybody was laughing standing around drunk. I said, “Let me take my billfold out, man.” They threw me in that cooler, and it was pure cold.

We left Sherry the next day on July 5. Two sergeants from MACV stayed that night at Sherry to hold the base for the ARVNs. I seen them there and thought they must be out of their damn minds.

When we were leaving the Duster guys let their dog ride up on the main Duster. He was a light brown dog, we called him Snoopy. That dog was blind, he had no eyeballs in his sockets, but he could walk around that firebase, and as long as you didn’t move anything he didn’t bump into it. He could smell you and would only go to certain people. He wouldn’t come near me.

I rode in the very last jeep on that convoy with the Sergeant First Class whose teeth looked like a deck of cards when he smiled. Me and him pulled rear guard. I had an M79 grenade launcher and this vest on with all the pockets filled with 40mm canister rounds with buckshot. And I had my M16. We took off out the east road and then up highway 1. Our job was to scan the sides of the mountains and the rear of the convoy to make sure nothing was coming up on us. We didn’t worry that much because we had three or four Cobra gunships that flew long circles around that convoy all the way back to Phan Rang. I think they were worried about somebody popping up with an RPG rocket and taking out the first vehicle, which would shut down the whole convoy and then you’re in an ambush situation. With the two Quad-50s and two Duster twin cannons we had plenty of firepower to take on almost anything.

Almost half way we came up on this big old bridge. Oh my God, it must have been seventy-five yards above the river way down in this gulley. The bridge had crumbling cement and must have been built by the French back in the 30s or 40’s. We did not think it would take the weight of the Duster, which is heavy like a tank. The Captain said if it collapsed it and a Duster fell that far it would kill everybody. There was a winding dirt and gravel road that went down the side of the gulley. The whole convoy followed it down to a big dam. A jeep went across first above the dam real slow to see how deep the water was. The Duster came behind and then the rest of the convoy followed. One of the trucks went too far off and turned on its side. It had a potable water tank on the back of it. We all had to go out and push it upright so a Duster could come and put a chain on it and drag it out. After that we got the convoy back up the side of the gulley and onto Highway 1 again.

I remember one big hill we went over where Firebase Mike Norton was that got overrun in 1970 and killed a bunch of people. (Charlie Battery 5/27 occupied Firebase Mike Norton for a time in 1970.) That was kind of a scary area, but it was so beautiful. I remember looking off to the left at an old narrow-gauge railroad that the French had built. And out there was a French tank with a big hole in its turret like it had taken a B-40 rocket. I said I wish I had film in my camera.destroyed tank along road on last convoy – Version 2

Steve Bell did have film in his camera and shot a blurry picture as the convoy sped past.

I thought what a lonely place to die, because they were fighting the Viet Minh back then.

The Viet Minh was formed by Ho Chi Min in China in 1941, to fight the Japanese in Vietnam during WWII, and then to gain independence from the French. With the division of Vietnam into North and South the Viet Minh took control of the North. When it tried to root out counter-revolutionaries it lost the support of the people and disbanded. It was replaced in 1960 by the Viet Cong.

We hit a blinding monsoon rainstorm about twenty miles out from Phan Rang. It poured by the buckets and we got drenched. Our main deuce-and-a-half truck had a bearing that was going bad and the wheel was smoking horribly. We were worried that the wheel was going to crystalize and break off. When we finally made it into Phan Rang in the pouring rain the colonel had a celebration for us, beer and T-bone steaks, because we had been convoying all morning.

The Duster guys told me they had to shoot Snoopy once they got to the rear, because they didn’t want the gooks to eat him.

The next day when we got up we heard from S2 Intelligence that once we pulled out of Sherry it got hit. There were only the two sergeants there and from what I heard they got hit real bad. I don’t think there was any hardened NVA in that area at the time. But all they had was a perimeter and some bunkers. If they got hit by a Viet Cong unit they would be in trouble. If they got into one of the good bunkers on the perimeter with a M60 they might have held them off long enough to call in a gunship. Just guessing.

That morning we had to go north to Can Ranh Bay to turn in the howitzers. The driver of that deuce-and-a-half started the truck up, drove about ten feet, and that whole wheel broke right off. Once it cooled down overnight, it didn’t want to go any further.

Home in A Flash

Coming home out of Cam Ranh Bay they took thirty-two guys off my flight because they couldn’t pass the drug test. We all had to go in a latrine, and they had this guy sitting in a chair above us. They gave each of us a tube and we had to piss in it, put a cork in it, and write our name on it. If your test came back positive they pulled you off the flight home. You had to either detox at Cam Ranh or get back to Ft. Lewis and detox before the Army would release you.

We also had to take everything out of our pockets and lay it at our feet. I had an Army knife they took from me saying it was illegal. Of course I also had the 75mm canister I was going to make a lamp out of I had to throw into a bid.

It was so quiet on my flight home.

I got into Ft. Lewis, Washington and they took pictures of the plane and guys sitting in the lobby you could buy. The next day they asked me if I wanted to re-up and I said hell no. They give me a steak dinner, process me, give me whatever pay I had coming. I caught a plane to Chicago, then went down to Dayton, Ohio. There was a phone strike so I couldn’t call home, nobody knew I was coming. Some old farmer saw me walking down the highway with my duffle bag on my shoulder. He picked me up and took me into Troy, which is about ten miles. Five days after leaving LZ Sherry I am back at my old job. It took a while to adjust to that.

Holy Ground

It was sad. Anywhere you go and see those mountains and you think of all the killing that went into the beautiful little country you never forget it. I knew even at that young age it was an historical event. I’m glad I got back. To stand next to an ammo bunker that took a direct hit and walk away from it is pretty good.

It was a short, quick time in our lives when we all got together on one little piece of land out in the middle of nowhere and hoped we made it out of there. We don’t realize until later in life that it was a wonderful experience in some ways, and a sad experience at the same time. It was something you never forgot no matter what you go through in life. Some made it and some didn’t, and when you look back it’s holy ground, very holy ground.

Steve Bell – Gun Crew – Part Two

The Wild Life

There were cockroaches and rats everywhere, and poisonous snakes: cobras and kraits. One of our guys shot a six foot krait snake from underneath a hooch.

Gary Sears with banded krait
Gary Sears with banded krait 

The krait is one of the world’s deadliest snakes. It’s bite injects a powerful neurotoxin, and if untreated is fatal within six to twelve hours. There is little or no pain at the site of the krait bite, creating a false reassurance in the victim. If bitten at night while asleep the victim can die without ever waking.

The rats were so bad that one night a guy on Gun 5 from Wisconsin woke up with a big rat chewing on his toe. One night I set a spring trap in my hooch, and every time it sprang on a rat I’d throw the rat out the door and reset the trap. Five minutes later it would go off again. It was BANG BANG BANG all night long.

There was an old hooch we tore down, and when we pushed over the first wall the rats and cockroaches rolled out like a wave and we had to jump to get out of the way. You didn’t want to set your beer down very long because the cockroaches would be all over it.

Haunted Hooch

Sgt. Rock was the new Gun 5  crew chief and a real nice kid. He was built like a brick shithouse and worked out all the time to stay in shape, and I supposed to fight the boredom of life on our base.

Sergeant Rock
Sergeant Rock

Shortly after coming to Gun 5 he decided we needed to build him a new hooch. This hooch Rock wanted was going to be twice the size of the normal hooches, and would hooch three people. So we collected ammo boxes. We rounded up god knows how many sand bags and piled into the back of our deuce-and-a-half. Where we needed to get the sand was outside the wire a ways. We went with our shovels and M16s. This new hooch was going to take days and days of sandbag and shovel work. As our hole got larger and deeper we started running into all these wooden planks. Big deal, right? Well we just kept on digging. Come to find out LZ Sherry was built close to a small village that had long since disappeared. All around our sandbag dig we could see bits and pieces of the village just showing above the dirt.

Remnant of the villagee
Remnant of the village

As we kept digging and filling the sandbags, we started to run into bones. First a femur, then a few ribs, and the next thing I know I dig up a human pelvis. Well that just about freaked us all out. We scrambled into our truck and called it quits on that hole.

The next day we were told that was the only place with good sand where we could dig safely, so here we went to dig more bones. When you’re nineteen years old not much bothers you though. Any bones we dug up after that we buried in the end. To this day it still does not bother me, I don’t know why. After that hooch was built I always thought of it as the haunted hooch.

The Best Birthday Present

This story starts two days before my twentieth birthday, when my gun chief came to my hooch and told me to pack for a short trip to Cam Ranh. He told me I had been chosen to become the battery projectionist. They wanted me to attend a two day class to learn to operate different movie projectors. Well I was new to LZ Sherry and thought movies would be fun for everyone. And I had a hometown friend in Cam Ranh that was a photographer for the navy and I might get to see him. I was all for this trip. I soon  found myself in a one day crash class for projection operation with no spare time to see my friend.

On my birthday I jumped on a Chinook for the one hundred mile trip back to LZ Sherry. We had about four other guys coming along with us. They were going to Phan Thiet after the chopper dropped off at LZ Sherry. Being that I was new in country and liked to take photos of everything, I spent my time hanging out the back port window taking pictures of the landscape from the air.

As I was hanging out the window I heard over the noise of the engines a series of very loud bangs, like someone was beating the chopper with a sledge hammer. I just turned my head in time for the crew chief to grab me by my shirt and throw me to the floor. The Chinook went into a ninety degree bank and started losing altitude. We were going down fast and everyone was on the floor. Finally it dawned on me we were taking fire and were hit. I really was scared shitless and if we kept losing altitude we were going to crash. Now this all happened all in about thirty seconds. The crew chief told me we were hit and losing hydraulics.

We finally leveled off, but we were not out of the woods yet, as we did not know if we would make it back to LZ Sherry. I was thinking: Great, three weeks in country and I was going to crash in the rice paddies in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was pretty amped up as we flew low and limped our way back to Sherry. We did make it and I almost kissed the ground when we landed.

The Chinook was damaged and could not take off for Phan Thiet. Sherry had a few extra guests that night, and we were put on yellow alert that night because the chopper was a prime target for attack. Those photographs I took out of the Chinook window always remind me of how I almost bit the big one on my twentieth birthday.

Picture just before chopper hit with machine gun fire
Picture just before chopper hit with machine gun fire

It’s A Guy Thing

The strongest memory I have about coming home on the plane is the stewardess going down the aisle spraying air freshener. She told us we smelled. I couldn’t smell anything, but I guess she did.

Steve Bell – Gun Crew – Part One

Snoopy’s Luck

I was nineteen in 1969 when a buddy and I sat in my VW listening to the dates for the draft lotto. I was young, had a good job and honestly did not want to go to the Army. So as we waited for our birthdates to come up we drank a few beers, both hoping our youthful good luck would give us each a high number, lessening our chances of being drafted.

As luck turned out my number ended up being thirteen, and my buddy’s three hundred and something. My friend never did go, but my story was different. I am color blind, have a heart murmur, and a knee that likes to pop out of joint. Still I passed the Army physical with no problem. The Army doctor did not hear a thing when he listened to my chest. Yet when I got out of the Army and applied for a DOT job, the old doctor had me step up and down a few times on a low stepping stool and said right away, “Yep, you’ve got a murmur.” Six months after my Army physical I found myself in Ft. Lewis, Washington getting a butch haircut, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

June 1970 I found myself hurrying down a sand road on LZ Betty to find my chopper out to Sherry. As I carried my duffle bag over my shoulder and worked to keep my footing, I noticed something shiny sticking out of the sand just off the road. I picked it up and found that it was a nice Zippo lighter. It was engraved on both sides. One side was Snoopy standing on top of his doghouse riddled with bullet holes. He is wearing aviator goggles and his aviator cap with his fist in the air. Underneath Snoopy it read: Fuck you Red Barron. On the other side was Psalm 23.4: Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and so forth. It was a nice lighter and I did smoke and needed one.

Lighter similar to Steve’s
Lighter similar to Steve’s

As I neared the chopper I remembered what the guys who gave me my orders told me to do, with me being a cherry and all. They told me to hang on and don’t fall out the chopper door as the door would be wide open. When I got at Sherry the chopper would not land due to the danger of enemy fire. They said it would hover about six feet off the ground and I had to jump and run. I thought: Oh God, was this lighter an omen? Was I scared.

I reached my chopper ride and hopped in. It was a short ride and I took snapshots of the area, noting all the rice paddies and the lack of trees. After a short flight we approached Sherry and circled the base, and for the first time I saw what a real firebase looked like. I saw a lot of sandbag bunkers, two tanks (the Dusters), many rows of concertina wire surrounding the whole base and all six guns in their parapets. The guns were not the same I was trained on at Ft. Sill, but something new I had never seen before. They turned out to be the new M-102s with longer range, much easier to air lift and set up.

As we circled I was thinking of the directions they told me back at LZ Betty about jumping from the chopper. So as we came in I was a lot nervous and readied myself for anything. After all, I was a cherry big time. The chopper didn’t hover but gently sat down on the pad, much to my relief. As I got my bag off I kind of laughed at those guys at Betty. I bet they told all the cherries to jump and had a good laugh also.

So My life at LZ Sherry for nearly fourteen months began. I kept that lighter the entire time I was at LZ Sherry, but lost it the very day we pulled up our guns to leave the base. So I think it served me well and was a good luck charm. I went home safe. Silly things stick in you head when you’re a kid.

First Action

My first week at LZ Sherry I am put on Gun 5, named Barbarella and the battery base piece. (Base piece fired the first adjusting rounds of a fire mission, followed by the other guns.) Everyone on Gun 5 was very friendly and helpful when I first got there. Some guys had been there for awhile and knew the ropes. For the first few days I just got to learn the layout of the base and was introduced to the new M-102 howitzer that I had never seen before.

Bell and Barbarella
Bell and Barbarella

I ended up sharing a hooch with two other guys, and that helped a lot. I was the third man in the hooch. Usually only two men were put in a hooch but they already had a full crew and I was  extra. My hooch partners were Clay and a guy from Wisconsin, his name was Hansen. I did have a cot, though and the only space was just inside the door. Most hooches were very small with two sections to them, the entrance and the sleeping area separated by a blast wall. The wall was there just in case of sappers. I slept in the blast wall entrance area.

On the fourth night, a very black night, Hansen and Clay and I were playing some cards in the hooch and we heard some distant thumps. I didn’t think anything of them, as at night guns went off all night long. Hansen and Clay jumped up yelling INCOMING and next the siren was blasting. My hooch partners grabbed helmets and flack jackets, yelled at me to stay put and not go outside, to wait until the mortars hit. They were out of the hooch in a split second.

I just sat there stunned for about three seconds after they left and thought: Shit, this is the real deal. Also I remember thinking: I got to go, this is what I am here for, my new friends are out there, and I should be with them. This all took place in just a few seconds. I hit the door and was exposed. I was shaking and scared, but thinking also of my duty. It was a straight shot to the Gun 5 parapet, about eighty feet across the road. I got about ten feet out the door and noticed it was no longer pitch black. Illumination rounds were lit overhead, and men, guns and hooches all swung to and fro caused by the illumination parachutes swinging above. The smoke from the howitzers was so heavy it was like fog, and I will never forget that smell. As I got closer to my gun I could see the parapet lit up. The scene was like having tunnel vision, shadows and light swinging, but also strobing from gun flashes.

When I reached the gun everyone was doing their thing. I couldn’t believe the gun could fire that fast, but the boys were pumping her. They needed ammo fast so I tried to get my shit together and do what I was trained to do. I did do it, and today am proud of my actions during my first enemy action. I don’t think I slept the rest of that night. I had to pull guard but was too worked up to sleep anyway. This was the first of many mortar, rocket and small arms attacks I experienced on LZ Sherry, but this time everyone came though safe.

Mike Leino – Fire Direction Control – Part Three

Going Home From the Nam

I was at LZ Sherry for almost 14 months. I had signed up for the five month early out of the Army if I would extend in Nam for another two months. So I did it cuz I don’t think I could have handled the spit and shine stateside after being in Nam. I don’t think I could have handled five extra months of military. Yep, it was a long two extra months. I kept my butt way low that last two.

Toward the end the way it worked out I was on night shift and got back to my hooch for a good sleep, did what I had to do to get comfortable, and went to sleep. I got woke up by someone, don’t remember who, but they said, “Pack your stuff, cuz you’re going home on the next chopper.”

In a daze I said, “Get the fuck out of here before I shoot you,” while I am reaching for my M-16 that was next to me on the wall. Whoever it was left of hooch quickly. They sent someone else back to tell me it was true: I’m going home. For some reason the Army was giving two-week early-outs from Nam. I was short but never thought I’d get it.

Anyway, the second guy that came to tell me the news (I believe it this time) said that I got only a little bit of time to get packed, cuz that chopper was on its way. I don’t remember anything else but getting on the Huey and looking at the back of the pilot’s helmet. It said TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN. He asked me where I was from. I said, “Detroit Michigan.”

And he said, “Cool, I’ll take you for a good last ride.”

We dropped to ground level chasing water buffaloes and making the mama sans dive into rice patties. I finally said, “Get this thing high because I don’t want to die in a chopper.” WHAT A RIDE!

Did all the processing out in Phan Thiet, Phan Rang and Cam Rahn Bay. Got as drunk and stoned as I could at each place. It was pretty smooth going to finally getting on that Freedom Bird.

Once on the jet I couldn’t believe it. American women!!! WOW!!! They were nice. I just didn’t know how to act. I think I felt like a dirty animal.

There were hoots and hollers once we took off. I think my jet was going to explode once we saw the coastline go away. I think I slept all the way back. I guess after almost fourteen months of Vietnam I was ready for a good nap.

It’s a Whole New World

Got to the state of Washington after refueling in Guam I think, and it was all kinds of processing out again. “Put all your contraband in the big garbage cans before you go through these gates.” Who would be that stupid to try to get something through them gates? Like someone said before, you mailed it home.

Physical and mental checkups were done on us. We were all mentally shot. At that point we would have barked like monkeys if they asked us to. Sign a thousand papers, here’s your plane ticket home and $600.

Washington to San Francisco. San Francisco was not cool. Got called all kinds of names and I hid out at the USO till my flight to Chicago. Same at O’Hare on way to Detroit. Detroit my brother and sister-in-law were waiting for me. My brother had a bottle of Ripple and a joint for me for the ride home. It was morning too. My whole family was at my mom and dads when we arrived home. I cried! My so-called girlfriend was there too. My dad even took the day off for my coming home. It was great at home with my family. Lots of drinking and talking and getting buzzed.

Later that evening my girlfriend and I went back to her apartment and she gave me some tea (with LSD in it) then told me she had a boyfriend. I told her I hope you are happy and adios. Trying to drive back to my folks house was definitely a trip. I don’t know if I even had a drivers license anymore. Got back to the folks house and they were still partying. (It was good). A a lot of my buddies found out I was home and came by and it turned out to be a good night. Really got high. Mom and dad, brother, sister and friends were buzzed and drunk.

After that I noticed things have really changed and I’m thinking I don’t know if I like this too much. Stupid stuff really pissed me off. The buddy I got drafted with because of that trouble in Detroit got out of the army about three weeks after I got home. We did a lot of crazy stuff together. I think I could write a book about a crazy vet and his friend.

Summing up

I am not a crazy druggie or drunk! Some people back in Detroit say I was pretty out there. I guess it was just trying to figure what I was going to do. Just trying to catch up to the world. I tried everything without hesitation, had to find out what worked for me and what didn’t.

Now I am a peace loving guy that has a family. I enjoy a few beers and a couple hits of pot a couple times a week to calm me down when I get in hyper moods – it helps.

I am in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my folks are from. Backwoods! Copper mining country. This is where my ancestors came to from Finland to make a new life for themselves after the Finnish-Russian war. A beautiful part of the country, but way too much snow. Gettin’ too old to move it around. Snow blowers and shovels are too hard anymore. Thinkin’ about Arizona where my son and his family are. Beautiful there.

I am going to veterans hospitals pretty regular now. Prostate cancer and forty-seven radiation treatments. My insides are not the same. Now I’m getting heart and vascular checkups and monitored pretty regular. They say it’s due to Agent Orange. To tell the truth I feel messed up. That’s where the beers and pot come in. Makes me feel good. So tired of doctors and appointments. Being in the boonies of the UP it’s a ride to a VA hospital. There has got to be a change where the civilian hospitals work with the VA.

Anyway, I’m not going to be a cry baby. I’m proud that I served with the 5/27. To me it was, let’s say, a well oiled machine. I loved everyone, well minus a couple. I tried to be a good guy and dependable. I’ve always loved new faces. I just hope I didn’t let anyone down. I did the best I could. Changed my life in a lot of different ways. I guess you could say I’ve got a lot of brothers from being put on LZ Sherry with a lot of good people.

Adios, Bros.

Mike Leino – Fire Direction Control – Part Two

Smart Enough

One day someone came to my hooch and told me the captain wanted to see me, and I said, “Why?”

“Don’t know,” he said.

I went to the Captain’s hooch wondering what I did wrong. In his hooch he asked me if I was interested in going into Fire Direction Control. I said, “What?? Why me?”

He said my test scores showed I was smart enough. Whoa! That’s a first. He said there was a shortage of trained FDC people, and we have FDC people leaving and we needed someone now.

I said, “I can’t leave the gun and I know nothing about FDC.”

He also said, “You would be protected during mortar attacks.”

I still said, “I don’t think so.”

He said, “I can make you, so think about it for a day or two.”

I finally said I would go into FDC. But all I could think is the guys on Gun 1 are gonna hate me. I just figured being in a sandbag hooch is safer for the remainder of time I had left at Sherry.

It was not easy for me going into FDC. All the guys in there were older and seemed a little too brainy and serious than what I was used to.

So the training began. Charts, maps, calculating, deflection, wind direction. What??? I was terrible at math in high school. I think the brainiacs didn’t have too much patience with me. Then I had to learn the radios and giving the commands to the guns on fire missions. I picked up on that pretty quick. Learning the codes for ordering supplies and ammo from the rear areas. I liked working the radios the most.

Mike Leino on his radios
Mike Leino on his radios

As time went on and the older guys were going home, younger guys were coming into FDC and it was becoming more comfortable and less stressful. It was a little crazy when getting mortars coming in and I had to go outside to the generator shack to switch over to a different generator, because one was about to run out of gas. Sometimes I’d just go and talk to the guys I was with on the guns. It was like a break. It broke up the boredom of just being in FDC.

The guys that were in FDC at the end of my tour were great. Ed, you and Kim Martin I liked the best. Kim and I had built a new hooch together. I have to say it was a good one. Another one I really liked was Lieutenant Christenson. He was not like any brass I had encountered. It’s like he was one of us. I got a couple little stories about him I don’t think I should tell! Medics were cool guys too.

I have to say I’m glad we were allowed to have a beer there. I know it put my head in a different place. There was also another tidbit that would put my mind somewhere else too. The rut of fire direction and sleeping really got to me, so I had to party anyway I could. I know Smoke knew I was doing something, but I was always a step ahead of him.

Leino in party mode
Leino in party mode

Comment from Kim Martin, hooch mate and fellow FDC guy:

Mike and I got to be pretty close in Nam. He gave me an embroidered ribbon-like cloth about twelve inches long and two inches wide with the word VIETNAM stitched in the middle which I keep in my den on an antique table from my mother.  It reminds me of those days long ago in Nam with Mike in particular, and other friends I made there. Mike had a great sense of humor and was a really good guy. I was lucky to share a hootch with him, which we built together.

Mike Leino resting on new hooch – Version 2

Mike and Kim taking a break Pictures by Kim Martin
Mike and Kim taking a break
Pictures by Kim Martin

Comment from 1st Lieutenant Bob Christenson:

 I remember Mike as kind of a quiet, introspective guy who didn’t say a lot but was taking it all in. In retrospect he was probably like the rest of us trying to figure out, What the hell am I doing here? He was an integral part of FDC though, and you could always count on Mike. I’m glad he had my back.

 When I think of Mike, two things stand out. First, I remember the firebase dogs, who were great judges of character. They liked Mike a lot. I recall that Tag was particularly close to Mike and vice versa.  Smoke, our FDC dog, was the son of Tag and Crash. Everyone on the firebase was really bummed the day Top had most of the dogs killed, and I think Mike was particularly upset. I think it took him a long time to get over it.

My other recollection is the day Mike saved someone’s life when they were out burning trash. Apparently the guy doused the trash in gasoline and splashed some on himself. When he lit the trash he lit himself. As I heard the story, the guy started to run and Mike tackled him and rolled with him to put the fire out. Mike was OK but the other guy was seriously burned and was sent back to the states. Mike never hesitated to put himself in danger to save this person, and I think that tells you everything you need to know about Mike. I put him in for a well-deserved medal, but was later told the battalion commander nixed it because he was afraid it would look bad if someone in his command broke Army regs by burning trash with gas.

Mike was a solid guy and an integral part of the FDC team.  Hard to believe that we were there over 45 years ago.

Picture by Bob Christenson Written on the back: “Mike Leino’s gear, now home and out of the Army”
Picture by Bob Christenson
Written on the back: “Mike Leino’s gear, now home and out of the Army”

Comment from Ed Gaydos, FDC section chief:

When I arrived at Sherry in early May of 1970 there were three guys in FDC brought in from the gun crews. All of them had learned the complexities of fire direction on the job. This was one of the most difficult specialties in the Army, and I was impressed.

Mike always had a dreamy, screw-the-Army attitude about him. Yet he took particular care about everything he did, sometimes moving in what seemed to me slow motion. He built the tightest sandbag wall on the firebase, each bag arranged like large bricks. This deliberate approach served him well in FDC. Working the radios or figuring firing data from charts and graphs and slide rules, I don’t remember him ever making a mistake or losing his cool under pressure. And of course, he was more than smart enough.