Tony Bongi – Gun Crewman – Part One

Into the Army

I got my draft notice at the end of 1967. I did not enlist. Guys from my area, the town of Iron River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, went to Milwaukee for physicals. A taxi picked me up and took me to a town to the east, Channing, and there was a railroad depot there. They ran passenger service down to Wisconsin. We got on that train to Milwaukee. There they picked us up on buses and took us to a barracks kind of building. The next day we had our physicals and of course the guy said, “Oh no, you’re in good shape.” We came home on the same train and a taxi was there to take us home.

When I got my notice to report for duty I did the same thing, a taxi picked me up from my house. On the way to the train station in Channing we picked up another guy in Crystal Falls and another guy in Sagola. The Channing station was due to be closed, and we were the last train out of there.

The train took me to Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic. I remember the barracks were these old wood buildings with cracks showing through in the walls, so that a sand storm came through and laid that shit all over the floor, which we had to clean up. In there we had a coal burning stove for heat. We had to stoke the stove with coal so we could stay warm in there, and you had to do a fire watch every night. It was always rainy and there was always moisture in the air. Holy Christ, every frickin’ day.

We would do our calisthenics every day, and when we went for lunch at the door of the chow line there was a chin up bar. When the line went through you had to jump up on it and do I believe twenty pull-ups. I was a little bit chunky when I went into the Army and at first I could barely do it. At first it was tough on everybody, but then we got in pretty good shape after three or four weeks.

You went through the chow line and they had chicken and pork chops and mashed potatoes. I was starving and I’m walking through the line and packing my tray up. I get to the end and there’s a drill sergeant standing there. He looks at me and he looks at my tray and he says, “Hey, fatty, where you goin’ with all that food?”

I say, “I’m gonna eat it.”

“No you’re not,” he says. “Put it down and go back through the line.

Son of a bitch, I have to go back through the line and get half of what I had the first time.

The Advantages of Being a Yooper

After I graduated from basic I went to Ft. Sill for artillery training. Where we were stationed was called Kelly Hill. I don’t know how I got into artillery. Your first week at basic you have all kinds of testing, so I guess that’s what got me into artillery.

They had a baseball team there and they asked if anyone wanted to play on the team. I played at home so I raised my hand. They took me for a tryout and afterwards said, Okay, you’re on the team.

And then one day at formation they said, anybody here know anything about pistols. From living up here in the U.P. you did all that stuff. We were shooting guns when we were six years old. I raised my hand and they said, come with me. There were a few other guys too. We shot the Colt 1911, the big. 45 caliber service pistol, but these were not .45s; they were .22 target pistols built on the same frame that went into combat as a .45. I got on the shooting team with these .22 pistols and we shot in competition around the area.

I was also on a burial detail. We went all over the country to bury old soldiers, from WWI, WWII and Korea. This one time we drove down to Florida and we went into this old cemetery, with vines and moss hanging all over the place. We also shot the seven gun salute.

I also became the Sergeant Major’s jeep driver. They asked us, Can anyone drive a jeep in rough weather? Where I came from everybody had a four wheel drive vehicle. I raised my hand and became his driver.

I still had to go to classes and all the training exercises, but I didn’t have any details like KP because I had these other activities and had to be at Sergeant Major’s beck and call whenever he wanted to go somewhere. One day we were headed out to the shooting range. It had rained the day before. We were in a flat and sandy soil muddy area. He wanted to go out into the field, but I said, “Sarge, it’s pretty muddy out there.”

“You can get out there,” he said, “you got a four wheel drive jeep.”

I went into the field and we got bogged down. I was spinning the back tires and it was throwing mud all over the place. There were two levers in the jeep, a shorter one to engage the four wheel drive, and the taller one would put it in either high gear or low gear. I reached over and pushed the small lever forward and pulled the big lever back, which put me into four wheel drive in low gear. When the front end engaged it threw mud all over the Sergeant Major’s whole right side as we took off. We got out of the field, and got out of the jeep, and he was cleaning off his arm and shoulder and leg. I went over by him and said, “You okay?”

He said, “That was pretty good driving. Where you from, boy?”

I said, “The Upper Peninsula of Michigan.”

He said, “Where the hell is that?” and walked away.

Every Day in Vietnam

I shipped to Vietnam from Ft. Lewis, Washington on a commercial flight that stopped in Anchorage Alaska, then at a big airport in Japan where we flew by Mt. Fuji, then into Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam – the hell hole.

From Phan Thiet they drove three of us out in a deuce-and-a-half truck. Right inside the main gate of this firebase I saw this big sign with the mortar fins and said to the driver, “What the hell is that?”

He said, “LZ Sherry.”

Picture courtesy Andy Kach
Picture courtesy Andy Kach

I wasn’t there three days when we got mortared. You talk about scared shitless. Every day that I was in Vietnam I was scared shitless. There were only short times when you got it off your mind, like in Mulvihill’s hooch drinking beer. But sometime during every day you were reminded and every day something scared you, either from a mortar attack or a sniper shot. When you got snipered at the bullet would whiz by you and hit something. When you first got there you didn’t know what it was and said, “What the hell was that?” and one of the guys would say, Get down, get down. That’s how new guys got shot, standing around asking, What the hell was that? Or something said in morning formation at the XO’s hooch, like there’s lots of movement to the northwest so be ready for an attack. An then there you go, you were scared. Then they put up that tall radar tower when I was there, and I thought holy Christ that’s attractive to the enemy, they’ll zero in on that right away.

Tony unpacking ammo on Gun 4
Tony unpacking ammo on Gun 4

Then there was the mine sweeping on convoys, which Mulvihill and I usually did together. He would have the mine sweeper out in front with me following. When he picked up a signal he’d go round and round the spot, and at the strongest point he laid the sweeper down lightly on the sand, and when he picked it back up it left a ring. Then the guys would go in with a knife on either side to try to find it. One time Tommy said to me, “Here, Bong, hold my gun, I got to go up there and probe.” He found it, and we all backed off, and they blew it up, but talk about being scared.