At only 13 months in the military I made sergeant and took over as chief on Gun 5. Normally the minimum to make E5 was 18 months. It was a blood stripe. They called it that because at one time when a sergeant was killed they needed to have the bodies to run the show. In my case this Commo sergeant got busted for something and lost a stripe, which I got. I had scored third highest on the sergeants board, but lost points for time in the military and time in grade. I was at the right place at the right time when the blood stripe came along.
I took the gun over from a guy named Smitty, a black guy. Tommy and the guys always referred to it as Smitty’s gun, even after I took over.
A Michigan Casualty
One night I looked into the scope, the pantelle, and saw a flag waving in front of my aiming stake. So I went down to see what it was. It belonged to this young punk from Detroit, a street kid just out of high school and a wise ass – Andy Kach. I told him to take the damn flag down. He told me to go to hell, it’s the state flag of Michigan. He was a private and didn’t know any better. I thought, OK, I’ll fix your ass.
Later that night we’re doing H&I perimeter fire. You take a round and put it in the chamber and shoot it at will anywhere in your firing sector. I turn my scope on the flag and for a little fun I shoot the corner off. It was so close to his bunker that it woke him up and scared the shit out of him. I knew enough to do it and get away with it. I told the first sergeant the flag should not have been there and I just shot too close. I told Kach next time I’d shoot off the corner of his bunker.
Andy still has the flag with its tattered corner. It comes out for reunions with Andy and Dave standing for photos on either side.
The Helmet Cure
When I was on Gun 3 with Emory Smith we kidded around a lot. We did our jobs an we had fun at the same time. I tried to keep things light when I got to be gun chief. We had this guy who was always falling asleep on guard. He claimed he had narcolepsy. So one night when he was asleep on guard his helmet was beside him and we filled it up with water. We come up to him and yelled INCOMING. He jumped up and the took that helmet and dumped it on his head. It was funnier’n hell. We didn’t know if he was milking the narcolepsy thing, but he never did it again.
On August 12 the two other guns I was on both got hit. Gun 2 got hit early in morning. Theodus Stanley died and Rik Groves, my old crew chief was medevac’d out. Then that night Gun 3, my first gun when I got in country, took a direct hit and it killed Howie Pyle. My Gun 5 was the closest to Howie’s the way the “lazy W” was laid out. We had so much shit coming in that I don’t remember a lot. I can remember when I found out he was dead. People running around helping people. But you’re shooting, so you can’t stop to see what’s going on. It’s a morbid thing, but that’s what happens. They’re running ammo to you and replenishing the guns. It’s like a race car when you pull in from the track and fill up. The war doesn’t stop when somebody gets killed. It happened and there was not much you could do about it, and then you’re busy.
Not long after this my gun took a mortar hit and I lost two guys, not through death, they were wounded. We were on 50% guard (four on, four off) and the mortar hit the top of my bunker. I was awake but I was not on guard. I was lucky, if I had been out on guard I would have been hit. The mortar blew out the tires on the gun and we had to lift the gun to turn it around to shoot back.
Never forget that night. But afterward I don’t remember much, not even the guy who was my hooch mate. Before that I could remember conversations with guys like I was there with them yesterday. They say that when traumatic events happen around certain times you forget. I can’t remember who bunked with me for three months. At one of our reunions Jim Kustes told me it was him and I didn’t even recognize him. I can tell you Rik’s mother’s name, his sister’s, how many kids he has – but I can’t remember Kustes to save my soul.
My daughter was born on June 13, 1969 – with three months left on my tour. When my time came I was anxious to get home, which is why I did not extend in Vietnam to get a drop from my overall military obligation. It would have required that I stay in Vietnam an extra 70 days. And we had a lot of shit going on. I had rank and I had my wife and my three month old daughter. I could take it for the seven months left on my military obligation.
I remember when I left for home. I had a Yashika camera, which at the time was a very good camera. Hank Parker, our Executive Officer, also had one and the batteries were hard to get. He asked me how much I would sell my batteries for. I told him I wanted one day out of there early, which he arranged. But I didn’t get out of Vietnam any earlier because I had to stay at LZ Betty an extra day. I became a training sergeant at Ft. Sill. I met up with Sergeant Farrell there and some of the old gang, so it wasn’t so bad.