Good News and Bad News
When I was still in high school in 1966 my older brother got drafted and went to Vietnam. He was in the 25th infantry division. When I graduated in 1968 he had just gotten out. The draft was still going pretty good and I was 1-A. My brother said to me, Whatever you do don’t go into the infantry.
I was driving around one-day and rode by the Army recruiting station. I just parked my car and went in there and talked to the recruiter. Of course recruiters get paid to sign people up. I said I did not want to go into the infantry.
He said, “Well we will get you into electronics school.”
I did not know anything about electronics, but it sounded pretty good to me. He signed me up for three years to become a fixed station technical controller. I did not even know what that was. He told me the school was in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. I did not know where that was either. He told me it was about 40 miles from New York City. I said that sounds alright.
About a month or two later I was at home still asleep when the phone rang. My mom came in and said, “The Army recruiter wants to talk to you.” This is around 7:30 in the morning.
I got on the phone with him and said, “Yes, sir.”
He said, “I got some good news for you and I got some bad news for you.”
I said, “Give me the good news first.”
“We got the school that you signed up for. You are all set to go.”
“Well what’s the bad news?”
He said, “Your bus leaves at 9:30 this morning. I got your tickets. Don’t be late.”
I did not have time to say goodbye to my dad or my brothers. My mom drove me over to the bus station and I caught the bus for Jacksonville to get sworn in. From there I took a bus to Fort Benning, Georgia where are I took my basic training – Sand Hill (the training facility within Ft. Benning). I thought to myself, I am from Florida so I can probably take the heat. But I know now why they call it Sand Hill, because it was the hottest place on earth in August. Anyway I took it a lot better than some of the guys.
After basic I did not have a chance to go home, but went straight to New Jersey. It was a beautiful school up there. The only requirement was to go to school during the day, and after that you were free to do whatever you wanted. But it was way above my head. It was one of those schools where you really had to be good at math and how to figure out circuits. A few of us flunked out of school around January. They came to us and said, You guys aren’t making it here and you have two choices: infantry or artillery. I said I wanted artillery. Most of us picked artillery. So we went to Fort Sill in January of 1969. I spent eight weeks training on the 105 howitzer, and then some extra time training on the 8 inch and 155 artillery pieces. After that I had twenty days of leave before going to Vietnam, my first time home.
I flew from home to Oakland California. They put us all in these airplane hangers. Everything was in there, bunks, even a PX. When you went in there they closed the door and would not let you out. When they did open the door, they had the plane sitting outside and marched us all out to it. I guess when you made it that far it was too late to back out. If you’re going to go AWOL you should have done it before going into those hangers.
About three or four hours in the air they told us to fasten our seatbelts, we were going to land in Anchorage, Alaska. The plane we were on, Northwest Orient Airlines, developed engine trouble. They said we were going to be in Anchorage a few days to get the plane fixed. They turned the whole plane load of GIs loose in Anchorage. They just told us to be back at a certain time. We spent two or three days there.
We stopped in Japan to refuel, and then landed at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. After you have been on the plane so long breathing fresh air, I remember when they opened the doors in Vietnam it had a rotten fish smell. I thought to myself, Oh my gosh do I have to smell this for a whole year? The smell was so horrible, I’m going to die.
Once we got settled they put us on a detail pouring concrete. I remember seeing nice homes with swimming pools and shopping centers. Where am I? I thought I was in Vietnam. We poured concrete from wheel barrels building sidewalks for three or four days.
Long Lonely Nights
When I got to Sherry first thing I had to do was go to the bathroom, which was a little two-stall latrine over these half barrels. Poor old doc (battery medic) had the duty of pulling the half barrels out, pouring diesel fuel in and lighting them up. Not long after that we had some combat engineers come in and build the Cadillac of all latrines. That’s when burning the shit barrels moved around to other guys. I remember I had that duty a couple times.
My first job at Sherry was in Commo because they didn’t have any openings on any of the guns. Instead they needed guards for that one stupid Commo tower on top of the Fire Direction Center. We did not have much to do in Commo except pull guard duty. Which was probably a good thing because when I came out of Fort Sill I did not know anything about commo, radios and stuff. I was trained in artillery.
We had to pull guard for 24/7. There were only three of us so we had long shifts. There was a sergeant, a guy by the name of Jones, and me. We each had to pull eight hours of guard duty. It was terrible. After a while we got another guy which made it a little bit easier.
I remember one night I was on guard duty when we got shelled. In the tower it was real quiet, and you could hear the mortars going off. You never forget that sound. I hollered out IN COMING, and of course I said the direction it came from. I remember after the attack First Sergeant Durant and Smoke came out and started climbing up to the tower, and I thought holy shit I am in trouble now. I must’ve done something wrong. They said, How did you know a mortar attack came from that direction? I told them because there in the tower you had these round lids that came off the 105 shell shipping tubes, and we had numbers painted on them all the way around inside the tower. So if you heard something you just looked down and you knew what direction it was coming from. After an attack they would go out and look at the mortar fins sticking in the ground and they could pretty much figure out what direction it came from. Durant and Smoke told me I was right spot on about the direction I told them that the mortar had come from. They said, Good job and keep up the good work.
I took that job seriously. When you are up there at one o’clock in the morning by yourself and everything is quiet and all you hear is crickets, you could hear that mortar coming out of its tube. It was a sound like no other sound in the world. It’s like the smell of marijuana, there’s no other smell like it in the world. I could hear that mortar being shot and I put everybody on alert. Once the mortars stopped falling, everybody got out on their guns and started returning fire.
It was a lonely job. I remember ducking a few times. There were snipers out there, and sometimes I could hear a bullet whiz by my head. Back in those days I smoked cigarettes. They told us in basic training that you could see a lit cigarette from a mile away. I always ducked down behind the sandbags to inhale, and then came back up again.
I also recall being on guard duty and seeing these strange white objects flying overhead, they looked like glowing cylinders, and you could hear them whizzing. A bunch of us saw them and joked that they must be UFOs. Only to learn later that it was the battleship New Jersey off the coast in the South China Sea firing it’s sixteen inch guns right over our firebase. Never knew what they were firing or who they were shooting at.
I was in Commo for about four months. After I left I heard that the sergeant got caught sleeping on guard duty and they busted him down to corporal. I could understand him going to sleep because it was a tiresome job. You are awake all day long anyway, and then you have to pull eight hours by yourself of guard duty at night. You did not get much sleep. When I left Commo I think they only had two or three guys left. He could have been pulling double guard duty shifts, meaning sixteen hours in that guard tower by himself.
An Infantry Outing
Hank Parker was a good lieutenant. One day he put together a sweep outside the wire, and that is a story all in itself. I think it was in June. We had been shelled quite a bit, and he was wanting to go out to find out where is the VC we’re shooting from. He asked for a bunch of volunteers. I guess we was bored cooped up there in that compound for so long that we was really just wanting to get out. Believe it or not, there was a little time in there when there was not much going on.
At that time we had two tanks that was assigned to us on the perimeter. And the guy that was in charge of the tanks, he was an E-6 staff sergeant, Parker was wanting to have him and one of his tanks to put all of us on the tank, and we was going to go out on top of that tank. The sergeant and Parker got into kind of a heated exchange of words.
The sergeant said, “I am not taking these guys out. These guys here is artillery, they haven’t been trained in the bush. They’re going to get in a firefight, are they’re going to get into landmines. You’re going to get them all killed out there.” He refused to do it. He said, “I’ll just take my two tanks and I’ll leave.”
Parker took us out anyway. There were maybe twenty of us. We waded through a couple of rivers out there.
In this picture Bean is on the left, me in the middle, and Cleaton on the right with his M-79 grenade launcher.
Some guys preferred the grenade launcher to the M-16, and boasted they could drop a grenade inside a basket at a hundred meters.
We also had an M-60 machine gun out with us. I cannot remember who had it, but I was carrying an extra ammo belt over my shoulder. (You could never have too much machine gun ammo.)
I can remember at one point we hit the ground and opened up on the tree line, but didn’t get any response. Jim Kustes was with us I remember. We did not run up on anything on that whole sweep, and it’s probably fortunate. That’s the only time I can remember us going out and looking for trouble.
The tank sergeant was good to his word. It wasn’t long before he took his two tanks and left. After that we relied on the Dusters and Quad 50s for perimeter defense.