Tony Bongi – Gun Crewman – Part Two

Nora

 Gun 2, BAD NEWS, and Gun 5, BIG BULLET, were on a mobile operation at Outpost Nora, a barren hilltop north of Sherry. The evening of May 17, 1969, while shooting a fire mission in support of the infantry, a round with a bad fuse leaving the barrel of BAD NEWS exploded over nearby BIG BULLET, killing Lloyd Handshumaker and James Johnson. Three crewmen on BAD NEWS were also wounded: Tony Bongi, Tommy Mulvihill and Leroy Leggett.

(From Left) Bongi, Mulvihill, Leggett At Nora Before Mishap Picture courtesy Tommy Mulvihill
At Nora before mishap(From Left) Bongi, Mulvihill, Leggett     Picture courtesy Tommy Mulvihill

I was in Vietnam just two months. It was a nighttime fire mission and I remember I was just in my shorts and combat boots. There was a big explosion, a huge white flash at the gun barrel. It blew me into a big pile of spent canisters behind the gun. I was fumbling around in those canisters trying to get out, but I couldn’t because they were sliding all over the place, and I finally got down to the ground and got up and went to my hooch for my rifle. I did not know what had happened. I thought maybe a sapper had got through the wire and threw a satchel charge or it was a mortar hit. After we tended to the wounded I heard Doc yelling, “Anybody else hit? Check yourself over.” I checked myself and on my right leg there were all these cuts and I thought, holy crap. I took a cloth and wiped it down and thought it was from when I hit the canisters.

Gun 2 BAD NEWS with brass canisters behind
Gun 2 BAD NEWS at Nora with brass canisters behind

The guys who were not wounded severely had to go down the hill outside the wire to secure a perimeter for the Medevac coming in. I was behind Mulvihill going down the hill and it was dark. He was wounded at the time I believe. We got down there and made a perimeter up against this tall grass. My rifle was on fully automatic, man, any little thing out there I was so keyed up I would have been blasting away, because we still didn’t know what that explosion was from and our little outpost could be overrun no problem. I’m a Catholic and this was one of those days when I said, Help me, God. The first Medevac came in and took off with the guys who were wounded, then another one came in to pick up the dead, Johnson and Handshumaker

After we got everybody Medevac’d out we went back up the hill, and we’re standing around talking all us guys with our M-16s and our flack jackets on, and you’re still trembling. Somebody said to me, I don’t know who it was, said, “Hey Bong, you’re bleeding, it’s going down your leg.”

I said, “That was from when I hit the canisters.”

He said, “No, it’s from the back of your leg.”

That’s when I pulled my shorts up and felt it. Doc came over to check it out and said, Tomorrow you’re going into Phan Thiet. They came and picked me up the next day to the hospital. I remember them freezing my right hip and then cutting it open. They pulled out a piece of shrapnel, not a big piece, sewed me back up, and said I could go back. They said, “Where are you from?”

I remember this, I said, “I’m from LZ Sherry.”

“LZ Sherry! Holy Christ. That’s a bad ass place.”

I said, “Well, you don’t want to go there.”

A coupe of weeks later I wrote home to my parents. I did not say anything about being wounded, just that I was OK, how many days I had left, stuff like that. A week and a half later I got a letter from my Mom saying that the Army had sent her and Dad a telegram saying that I had gotten wounded in the right hip and left leg. I said to myself, Oh my God, and she did not hear from me for a couple weeks. How the hell would that make you feel? Then I had to write her back and tell her I’m Okay and the Good Lord is taking care of me.

Telegram to Tony's parents
Telegram to Tony’s parents

Note the telegram incorrectly states their son was wounded in the left leg, versus his right, an official error Tony continually works to correct at his VA hospital.

Thinking about it weeks later, when we set that gun up the metal stakes we put in the ground to build the parapet we had to pound down lower on one side because we were set up on a hill and would be firing down the hill. Thinking about it afterward I though we hit one of those stakes with a point detonating fuse. But the guys when we got together said, No, because you would have seen the blown out parapet. It was years later that Mulvihill told me it was a bad fuse.

That flash! I still see that flash. In my career as a fireman I’ve seen big flashes, like when electric lines come down and hit a car, and that always takes me back to Nam.

August 12

The date sticks in the memory of every guy who was there – the day two mortar attacks, one in the early morning and one late at night, killed two howitzer crewmen. Tony remembers the second attack that killed Howie Pyle on Gun 3.

I was still on Gun 4 with Tommy Mulvihill. When the explosion happened you could tell Gun 3 got hit and we ran over there. Tommy was the first one there along with a couple of us. The mortar must have hit right at the gun because the tires were flat and it was tipped to the side a little. There was a bunch of other guys there, all kinds of moaning and hollering and screaming and Howie was laying there gasping. Crap! One guy had a piece of shrapnel hit him in the left side under his armpit, it took that whole area right out of there, just gone. It was all horrifying to see – you’re 18, 19 years old and you’re seeing this shit. How do you come out of that?

The medic then told us all, “Come on guys we still got a fire mission to shoot, get back to your guns.” We had to go back to our gun to continue the fire mission, shoot illumination rounds, and we shot some beehive rounds out there worried about a ground attack. So we couldn’t really help, we had a limited number of guys. Mounting casualties over the prior two months had severely depleted the battery.

Christmas 1969
Christmas Star

We put up a star on top of the FDC bunker with lights one of the guys got from home. A cease fire came down for Christmas, but somebody forgot to tell the enemy there was a ceasefire. Let me tell you they zeroed in on that lit up star with the mortars that night. They clamped on that sucker. Still it was a merry Christmas because nobody got hurt that night.

The best part was a Christmas package from Andy Kach. Andy and I became pretty good friends. When he left I was a little depressed because he was a good guy. He said, “Tony, when I get home I’m going to send you a bottle.” Well son of a bitch at Christmas time I got this package from Andy and we opened it up and it was a bottle of Seagram’s. We sat around and toasted Andy. He wasn’t even twenty-one, he couldn’t buy the bottle, he had to get his dad to buy it.

Tony on left with pipe and Seagram’s
Tony on left with pipe and Seagram’s