Jon Varat – Fire Direction Officer – Part Four

Battalion Adjutant

When Joe DeFrancisco left in March of 1970 we made do without a captain. Bob Christenson was the battery XO, a 1st lieutenant and senior to me, and as I remember we ran the battery together. We were sufficiently experienced that at battalion level they felt they could leave the battery in both our hands.

I was in that role only a short period and then went to Phan Rang as battalion adjutant.

A Field Guy at Heart

From two letters home shortly after arriving in Phan Rang

I am fine and have a new job at battalion headquarters as adjutant. It is really a captain’s job, but with my time out in the field and my supposed qualifications of the academic variety I was recruited. I would have rather stayed in the field for a while where there is less paperwork and more meaningful responsibilities.

I will try to explain my job to you. As adjutant I am on the battalion commander’s staff as S1. This staff position has to do with personnel, where they are assigned, their personal affairs, the trouble they get into, and in general their health, welfare and morale. Also in most things I act as an executive secretary writing correspondence for the commander. A lot of paperwork but sometimes interesting. At least I can see that guys in the field get mail and other little comforts.

Because I had been in the field I knew how much guys looked forward to getting their mail. I personally escorted the mailbags every day to the helicopters.

As battalion adjutant I was able to take a jeep occasionally. When I heard that some of the guys in the field wanted to play ball, I took a jeep up to Nha Trang to our supply depot in order to get baseball equipment. I got bats, gloves and balls, which I made sure got distributed to the battery. This was really in the waning days of the battalion, but the guys were still out there. One of the people working the rear area really appreciated that too. He became my main guy to make sure that the men in the field were looked after.

Baseball at Sherry Umpire Staff Sgt. Hopkins, Gun 5 Crew Chief
Baseball at Sherry
Umpire Staff Sgt. Hopkins, Gun 5 Crew Chief 

Korean Officer

I had a couple of interesting exchanges with the Korean officers. One was an unbelievably chiseled kung fu kind of guy. He looked like the toughest guy I had ever met in my life. Falling into a conversation with him it turns out the Koreans were still very wary of and terrified of the Japanese from WW II. It was a leftover cultural thing that the Japanese were the meanest SOBs on the planet. It struck me how these attitudes pass down through the generations.

Free Ride on a Medevac

I experienced a personal incident that had nothing to do with the war. I was still on duty to make rounds on the perimeter. There was not much going on around Phan Rang, but you had to do it. At that point it was only once a month because there were so many officers around. You made two rounds, one at night and one in the morning, and you slept in a special building for that purpose. I made my night rounds, and then got up for five o’clock morning rounds. I step out of bed and there is a sharp pain in my right lower abdomen. I am a guy without problems generally so I think, OK, I just slept funny. I take about three steps and it is not going away. I literally cannot walk without shooting pain. They decide to Medevac me to Cam Ranh Bay. The doctor who sees me says: You probably have something called retrocecal appendicitis and we’re going to have to take your appendix out.

In retrocecal appendicitis the appendix is located behind the cecum portion of the intestine. Even deep pressure on that portion of the abdomen may not elicit pain, and for that reason it is called a silent appendicitis.

Another doctor comes along and says, We’re just going to wait a little bit. We’re not going to give you medicine. I know you are in some pain, but I don’t want to mask the symptoms. I want to see what’s going on here. He turned out to be right. I still have my appendix to this day. As best they could tell I had something called pleurodynia. (I have no idea what that is.) They put me in a bed and had me inhale from oxygen tanks for a couple days and it just disappeared. And then I went back to battalion headquarters. So I had the experience of being Medevac’d in Vietnam, without losing my appendix unnecessarily.

A Human Connection

I worked really hard as battalion adjutant. The battalion commander and his XO, not so much. They piled a lot of stuff on me because they figured they could. Still they were both decent officers. The S3 Operations major there, an African American, was in my opinion the best officer at battalion.

I did not mind the hard work, it actually made the time go faster. And I still had time to go out on special trips and do the good things soldiers did as part of the pacification program. On one particular trip we went to a Vietnamese village where Dr. Muss, who was a really good guy, was giving inoculations to the kids. We spent most of the day there seeing people come in and get good treatment. On the other side of the Vietnamese village, “across the railroad tracks,” there was a Hmong village (mountain people, also generally referred to in French as Montagnard). The were treated more poorly than the Vietnamese treated themselves. As if these villages were not poor enough, they treated the Hmong like dirt.

We came across a Vietnamese woman whose husband had died. She had children from that husband, and then she had remarried and had children by the new husband. The cultural thing was you did not pay much attention to your old children if you had new children. At least that is how I understood it. We saw that the children from the former husband were really malnourished. A group of us decided that one of them, a little four year old kid, would probably die. We just could not leave him there, and did something we were not supposed to do. We smuggled him back onto the base. I held this four year old child in my arms for several hours going back. He had the warmest body. I mention this because it is one of my most vivid memories. In the middle of the craziness there was a human connection. Dr. Muss took care of him and fixed him up. I do not know what ultimately became of him. Nor do I know what became of those two kids who worked at LZ Sherry for us, “Grace” and “Slick” as we called them, although I’ve often wondered, because I fear the worst since they were associated with Americans.

Calling It What It Is

Fragging incidents were serious, and common enough throughout the battalion to worry people. At some point we wrote a letter saying we’ve got to stop calling such incidents fragging. We have to start calling it what it is, which is premeditated attempted murder. You use the wrong language and people get a little cavalier.

Going Home

In July of 1971 B Battery left the field and brought all of its equipment and howitzers to Phan Rang, as part of a general deactivation of the 5th Battalion. At this time the ARVNs took over LZ Sherry. 

I left for home on July 18. I was asked to escort the battalion colors home to Ft. Lewis as well, but I cannot remember that I did so. By this time I had worked out an arrangement to be stationed at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, about an hour from the University of Pennsylvania, which would allow me to return to law classes in addition to my military duties. Writing home, a few weeks earlier, I let loose a little:

 Vietnam is really getting old. We have no real mission. If we did it would not be a pleasant one. The amount of purposelessness and nonsense here is too monumental for words. The whole affair is slapstick; I need to get away before it gets overbearing.

Going home I remember having to wait a couple extra days at Cam Ranh, and that was really unpleasant. I was dying to go home. They searched my duffle bag for drugs. I understood it, but still was irritated that after spending all this time subject to enemy fire they were worried about whether I was bringing drugs back to America. They were right, I understand that, but it was annoying. I also was really annoyed because they took my Ho Chi Minh sandals. I really wanted those things.

The one thing I brought back from Vietnam that I did not want was the sound of helicopters. It’s the only sound I do not like. I did not have traumas or nightmares coming home, but helicopters still bug me.

I bought an MGB Roadster through the PX a few months earlier. I always liked to say that it came from England, I came from Vietnam, and we met in New York.

Jon Varat – Fire Direction Officer – Part Three

Vivid Memories

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

The Convoy

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

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

Alone

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

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

A Field Court Martial

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

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

He said, “The village nearby.”

He was then asked, “How far is that?”

His answer was, “Three klicks.”

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

Two Proud Moments

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

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

I remember two proud moments from that time.

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

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

Critters

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

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

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

A Catch-22 Story

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

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

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

Cri Du Coeur

Letter home dated February 24, 1971

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

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

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

Jon Varat – Fire Direction Officer – Part Two

Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

Sherry

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Making a friend
Making a friend

Eyes and Ears

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

Watching for the enemy

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

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

Watching the other guy too

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

You Can Tell A Man By His Books

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

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

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

A sample of Jon’s books:

The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

War Between Russia and China, by Harrison E. Salisbury

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

The Czech Black Book by Robert Littell

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

America The Raped by Gene Marine

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

Three Short Novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

No Easy Victories by John Gardner

Prejudice and Race Relations by Raymond W. MacK

Yom Kipur

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

Jon Varat – Fire Direction Officer – Part One

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

From King to Peasant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching the Soul

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

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

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

Jim Kustes – Gen Crew – Part Three

Steve Sherlock

Steve Sherlock and Percy Gulley, both twenty years old, died almost instantly on a mine sweep April 2, 1969. Jim remembers that Sherlock’s father sent a letter to B Battery that  was read to everyone at formation.

Steve Sherlock was in my section. At first I complained about him to Calvin Smith our gun chief. I’m doing all the work and he’s sitting on his ass not doing anything. Smitty said, “Let him be. He may not do anything for a couple days, and then he’ll get up and spend the whole day reorganizing, go through the whole area organizing the ammo.” So I never said anything. I won’t use the word lazy, but he was very laid back.

Sherlock was from Kingston NY and his parents would send him these CARE packages all the time. His hooch was filled with canned goods and he used to light pieces of C4 to heat his pork and beans or whatever. I remember he’d tell me when you light the C4 to never stamp on it or it would blow your foot off. I later learned from Myth Busters that wasn’t true at all, but I believed it at the time.

Sherlock with a can good at his feet Picture by Dave Fitchpatrick
Sherlock with a can at his feet
Picture by Dave Fitchpatrick

I only knew Sherlock three or four weeks, but he became a very good friend and I remember him better than anyone else. He did a thing that I hated. He would unscrew a grenade, take out the blasting cap, and put it back together. Then he’d pull the pin and throw the grenade at you. I used to tell him, “Stop that! One of these days you are going to grab the wrong one.”

What seems funny is that I felt like I knew him for a long time, and it turns out to be just for a couple weeks until he was killed. We were building an enlisted club where we could drink beer, and that day they needed a detail to either work on the beer club or go out on a mine sweep. It was my turn to go out on the mine sweep, but Sherlock said to me, “No, I been in country longer. You go on the detail and I’ll go on the mine sweep.” He thought going out on a mine sweep was the easier job. I remember being up on the roof of the new club while people were handing me sandbags and I heard the explosion. I looked up and saw this smoke on the road.

Mine explosion Picture by Dave Fitchpatrick
A mine explosion on the road east as seen from Sherry
Picture by Dave Fitchpatrick

Tom Townley: Medic

When the road crew got hit sweeping the road, they were probably about a mile out from LZ Sherry, maybe a little more. I was burning shit at the time, when I heard an explosion and looked up and could see the smoke over the tree line. And I knew something had happened but I didn’t know what. And then all of a sudden I saw a Jeep come flying up the track towards the firebase screaming and yelling, “Doc, Doc, get over here.”

Well I ran and grabbed my bag. And jumped on the jeep and they took me out there. I got out of the jeep and was walking along the side of the road. The 1st sergeant Farrell said, “Doc! Stop! Watch where you’re walking.”

And I stopped.

He said, “You can’t walk over there. Walk on the hardpan.”

I came close to stepping on one of those bombs that when you step on it all the little bombs pop up in the air. I almost stepped on it. The Viet Cong picked up artillery rounds and bombs that never exploded and buried them as mines. There was enough explosives in this one it would have blown my leg off.

Sherlock was already dead. He was gone. There was nothing we could do for him. But I had to take care of Gulley. He was blown away from here down (places his hand at his rib cage).

There was nothing there. Nothing. It was gone. His one arm was gone. And he was still alive. Well I wrapped his arm for him, because he saw it. Told him he was going to be all right, that was all I could tell him, you know. I still have dreams about that. But there was nothing I could do, absolutely nothing I could do. There was nothing there to do anything with. You know what I mean? But he hung in there for a good twenty minutes. It took that much time (He is silent for a long moment). The way …. the way … he was blown, it must have constricted the blood flow, enough to keep him alive. He had enough blood in him to keep him alive apparently.

They were not the only ones I saw when I was there. I saw a couple of Vietnamese that they brought in and wanted me to fix up. They were already dead.

Paul Dunne

My almost being on that convoy instead of Sherlock was like when Dunne and I switched places on the jeep.

Jim was sitting on the hood of the jeep when it hit a road mine and killed Paul Dunne. The memories of Dick Graham and First Sergeant Durant are a good introduction to Jim’s story.

Dick Graham

We had to mine sweep the access road that ran from the battery out to the paved road that went into Phan Thiet. It took quite a while. The road was about two and a half miles long and there was a lot of shrapnel in the road, mostly from fire missions that we had shot. When we got to the end of the road, to the bridge where Paul was killed, the medal detectors were of no use because the bridge was made out of reinforced concrete. We would visually inspect it. Then shortly after that bridge was the paved road going south into Phan Thiet, which we called 8-Bravo. You got on that and you just whipped right into Phan Thiet.

Period map showing LZ Sherry (left), access road running East to bridge and paved 8-Bravo

First Sergeant Durant

We were due to run a convoy, and I was running it. Paul had the jeep all fixed up and ready to go: radios, weapons and everything. Commo section came over and said, “Hey look, can we run the convoy? Guys want to go in and get this and do that. Rather than you run it, let us run the convoy.”

I said, “OK. I guess you can go ahead and run it.” So I told Paul, “Go take all that shit back off the jeep because Commo’s running the convoy.”

He said, “Look, First Sergeant, I’m all loaded up, I’ve got everything set. Why don’t I just run with them today.” 

I said, “Well, if you want to.”

I’ll tell you about Paul Dunne. We’d sit in my hooch talking about buying a car through the PX and having it sent home. I was looking at a Jaguar and he wanted an MGB. When I got home I looked at a Jaguar, but it was raining at the time and the roof leaked, so I didn’t get a Jag. I also looked at an MGB, but didn’t get that either.

Paul never had any money. He used to send everything home. We paid two or three bucks a week for soda and that kind of thing, but he never did. He sent every nickel home. Instead of sending his laundry to town like everybody else, he washed his clothes by hand and they were always so wrinkled.

 

Paul Dunne on laundry day Picture by Rik Groves
Paul Dunne on laundry day
Picture by Rik Groves

I didn’t know I was supposed to go on a mine sweep for a convoy. I had just gotten off duty, I was sound asleep when Dunne pulled up to my hooch. Dunne was calling me to come on, come on. My section chief said it was my turn to go, and I told him I just got off guard duty, but he said I had to go. I was really mad. I told Paul: I’ll go, but you’re taking me down to the mess hall for some coffee and sandwiches. After I got my coffee and sandwich I said, “I’ll take the rear and sit looking backwards.” Which I did all the way down the road. The road was full of people walking on each side. A lot of them were ARVNs going to get resupplied.

We came to near the end of the dirt access road where it met the highway going south into Phan Thiet, which we knew was clear. I was going to take the jeep back to Sherry. So I jumped off the back of the jeep and walked around to take Paul’s place behind the wheel. We had a new sergeant who was doing the mine sweeping and he said first we had to go all the way to the end of the dirt road to look for this dog we had with us I think belonged to the First Sergeant. I was in the drivers seat and Paul said, “I’ll take the jeep up for the dog,” so I jumped out of the drivers seat and went back to jump on the back again. But by this time the six or so guys who were walking flank had come back and were on the jeep to ride to the end of the dirt road. So I jumped on the hood of the jeep over the front left wheel, in front of Paul. I had my hand down holding onto the wheel well and turning around talking to Paul. The wheels had just barely started to turn when we hit the mine. The wheels didn’t even go six inches.

The mine went off at the front left tire under where I was sitting and holding my hand, and right in front of Paul. I went flying off to the left down into the ditch that ran under a culvert. There might have been water down there, I don’t remember. I looked back up at the jeep, and it had spun a complete 180 and was still bouncing. I was trying to get my watch off because my hand was injured. I was also looking for my weapon because I didn’t know what was going on.

Your body automatically goes into shock and I didn’t know how bad I was. I remember laying there and the medic coming and giving me morphine. I said to him I was worried about getting too much morphine. So he marked a big M on my forehead and stuck the empty syringe through my lapel. The Medevac then took us out, probably to the aid station at LZ Betty at Phan Thiet. I remember Paul laying next to me, so close I could have reached over and touched him. From the waist up he looked normal. A doctor was working on his bottom. He was very pale and his eyes were closed. I think he was already dead. I have a memory of them pulling a sheet over his head. I don’t know if that is a true memory. Under all that medication you don’t know. What I think is true might not be.

I always thought Paul died from an injury to his legs. But the First Sergeant later told me he was hit on the right side of his neck that I could not see laying there. At the aid station in Phan Thiet I remember the new sergeant on the convoy coming to visit me. I think he was in the passenger seat next to Paul, and I think he was wounded but not bad. That jeep was loaded with people, but as far as I know Paul and I were the only ones hurt badly.

Mine explosion under front left tire
Mine explosion under front left tire
View from driver’s seat - note hole in floorboard Pictures by Andy Kach
View from driver’s seat – note hole in floorboard
Pictures by Andy Kach

From Phan Thiet I went to a hospital in Phan Rang for a couple of weeks. A woman came up to me with a stenographer’s notebook and said I was to dictate a letter home. I said to her, “It looks like I’ve got two broken legs and a broken arm,” because they were in casts and that’s all I could see. I never saw the actual wounds. And that’s what I wrote home: I’m alive and OK, but with two broken legs and a broken arm.

Then to Saigon overnight to get more blood, before they could fly me to Japan. I had surgery in Japan. And then I flew to Ft. Lewis for a brief period, and then to a big Army hospital in Phoenixville outside Philadelphia. I was there for six months. I ended up having so many surgeries I can’t remember all of them.

After six months at Phoenixville I was already thirty days over my two year enlistment. They asked me if I wanted to get out or stay in the Army till the end of my treatment. If I got out I would be on total military disability and on Social Security disability, together coming to around seven hundred a month. At the time I was making less than two hundred dollars on active duty. So I took an immediate disability retirement and spent another three months at the VA hospital in Buffalo. I wanted to start college in August, but they did not want to discharge me at first. Finally they said OK, but I had to go back everyday to have my bandages checked. I don’t know how long that lasted, probably till I stopped going.

I got a letter from an old buddy at Sherry, George Stevens. Back in July of 1969 when I had been at Sherry for about four months, a mortar hit one of the gun hooches. I ran over and when I reached the gun several guys were hit. Behind the gun lay George Stevens. He had a large gash on his right arm. I began putting direct pressure on the wound. I could actually feel blood squirt into my palm. After the medic came I began looking through his pockets for money. I wanted to make sure he had some cash in the rear after he recovered, because when guys got wounded their stuff had a way of getting lost. When George returned to Sherry he always teased me that I was trying to steal his money. After I was injured he wrote to me in his letter that he never got the opportunity to go through my pockets.

I still had open wounds in my leg all the way into the 90s, over twenty years later. They would drain, I’d have to wrap them, they’d heal up for a little while, then open up and start to drain again. I finally went to a private plastic surgeon and had them closed up and haven’t had a problem since. I do have to be careful with my right foot keeping cream on it all the time so it doesn’t open up. It’s been OK for a couple years now.

Jim Kustes – Gun Crew – Part Two

Kustes center loading a round
Kustes center loading a round on Gun 5

Living Large

I spent thirty years not giving Vietnam a thought. So there are big gaps in my memory. Early on a very close friend, Steve Sherlock, died on a mine sweep. Eight months later at the end of my tour I’m wounded bad when the jeep I am sitting on hits a mine and Paul Dunne is killed. I remember both of those, but not a whole lot in between

I do remember it was not all doom and gloom at Sherry. I had a good time there, one of the best times I ever had. I don’t remember a lot of details, but I remember the big urn of coffee the cooks put out at night outside FDC. That’s where I learned how to drink black coffee without cream. The little cartons of milk were a lot of times soured and you’d hunt for one that was good. In the mess hall I liked to watch the officers who flew in for a day go into the officer’s section with a carton of milk. They’d take a big swig of that milk and spew it out. I’d get a kick out of watching them.

I was friends with the guy who worked in the mess hall, Mike Bessler from Doylestown PA, and I would go down to the chopper pad when they brought the ice in and help unload. I always dropped one and got to keep a chunk. In my hooch I had a cooler and I always had ice cold beer. My hooch mate, Leroy Leggett, had a reel-to-reel tape recorder. We ran a secret wire from the battery generator into my hooch, so we could play music. And we had lights strung up in there. I could get ten people into my hooch with the music and lights and cold beer. The guy in the mess hall would give me ham, and we’d have ham sandwiches too. One day the First Sergeant, it had to be Durant, walked in because he heard the music and the partying. He just stood at the door and said, “Jeez, you guys got it better than I got it.” He just shook his head and turned away and walked out.

Party time in Jim’s hooch - Leggett with pipe, Jim with beer
Party time in Jim’s hooch – Leggett with pipe, Jim with beer

I made sure I had as many amenities as possible. Our showers were made out of ammo boxes with a 55 gallon drum on top and a ladder going up to fill it. The officer’s shower had a portable water heater in the barrel, and I thought if they had hot water why not us? So I worked on my shower to make sure we had hot water. I can’t remember exactly how I did it. I may have gotten a water heater and heated the water on the ground and then carried it up. Or I may have put the heater in the barrel on top of the shower. I don’t remember. I do know we had hot shower water on my gun.

The M67 Immersion Water Heater ran on diesel, and heated water to clean mess kits, trays, utensils and canteens. The officers shower had one installed in the water barrel perched on top of its rickety frame. The enterprising Kustes somehow secured an M67, no doubt through his special relationship with Mike Bessler.

Cindy, civilian mess hall worker, with M67 water heaters
Cindy, mess hall worker, with M67 water heaters
Two Showers Original picture by Dave Fitchpatrick
Two Showers
Original picture by Dave Fitchpatrick

Ants, Scorpions and Snakes

We were being mortared so much in July and August of 1969, every day, that it didn’t bother me anymore. We couldn’t get anyone to patrol the mortar sites for us, so Lt. Parker got all the guys to go out and look for ourselves. There were probably twenty or thirty of us. Parker told us when we hit this mound out in the rice paddies for everyone to open up on the tree line with suppressive fire in case anyone was out there. When we get there we all hit the ground and open up. I had this piece of crap M16 that jammed on me. I am laying on the ground trying to clear my rifle. I am laying on the ground trying to clear my rifle. Red ants start biting the hell out of me, and I realize I am laying on top of their nest. I jump up brushing them off, and I look around and everyone is laying on the ground shooting and here I am standing up jumping around in the middle of it all. I was lucky we were not getting any return fire.

After that day, I thought if I ever have to go anywhere I am taking an M14. One of the medics had an M14 and I borrowed it from him whenever I had to go anywhere. I never used my M16 again. Guys would carry the cleaning rod on the butt of the M16 to poke out the spent shell when it jammed and wouldn’t eject. You had to keep the M16 really clean, but the oil you had to use on it, because things were so sandy, made it worse.

……………………..

I remember when I first got in country, people had these scorpions and they’d take a pencil to make them strike it. One day I was taking a sandbag out of the gun parapet and reached in and got stung in the finger by a scorpion. It kind of scared me because being naïve you hear all these stories about you better get aid right away. I went to the medic and he said, “Yeah, you’ll be alright.”

……………………

We also had a cobra in our parapet. It would rear up with its hood. I had a bad fear of snakes at the time. But one of the guys shot it. Later I was working out on the perimeter and this black thing sprung up on me. I almost crapped my pants I thought it was a cobra. It turned out to be a piece of black metal banding that popped up when I stepped on it.

Jim Kustes – Gun Crew – Part One

Jim on Gun 5
Jim at Sherry on Gun 5

Into the Army

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

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

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

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

It Ain’t Fair

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

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

Germany

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

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

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

A Different Experience On The Road To Sherry

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

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

Ed Gaydos – Fire Direction Control – Part Six

Freedom

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

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

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

September 16, 1970

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

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

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

Higher Education

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

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

August 15, 1970

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

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

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

“An unjust and unwinnable war.”

“Post colonial imperialism,” whatever that meant.

“Baby killers.”

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

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

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

May 16, 1970

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

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

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

The Hero’s Welcome

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

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

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

“Stepped on a mine.”

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

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

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

“Where were you?”

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

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

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

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

“No, all I noticed was the limp.”

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

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

My Madonna

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Gaydos – Fire Direction Control – Part Five

On Second Thought

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

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

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

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

He said, “Good decision.”

The Warrior Departs

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

February 5, 1971

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing at Sherry

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

My Own Departure

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

Gaydos and his calendar
Gaydos and his calendar

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

March 16, 1971

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

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

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

 

Ed Gaydos – Fire Direction Control – Part Four

Tube Ring

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said.

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

“OK. What’s going on?”

“Tube ring.”

“Say again?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

“Sir, which test did he do?”

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

“I see, sir.”

“… and it was off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said, “And last night?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“Who did it?”

“Don’t know. Gotta go.” 

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

The lieutenant was shaken but unharmed. The perpetrator was never found, and frankly nobody looked that hard, including Top. An uneasy quiet settled on the battery. The battery commander took the lieutenant off the guns, leaving him minimal responsibilities. The lieutenant spent his days drifting from place to place with a manufactured smile on his face, and avoiding the gun crews. He came into the FDC bunker every day and attached himself to Lt. Christenson. The two of them came to our little hooch parties at night, where Christenson was the comic center of attention and the lieutenant was happy to sit and be one of the guys. He turned out to be a decent fellow when he wasn’t in charge of anything. When he left the battery he departed a lonely and sad figure.