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.