Captain Hank Parker
Kluk Kluk Kool-Aid
I had been a month without mail when somehow a package comes in for me while I’m on another operation with the ARVNs. I open the package and it’s got Kool-Aid in it. The ARVNs never had Kool-Aid, so when we’re stopped by a beautiful, clear mountain stream I take the opportunity to make Kool-Aid for them. You couldn’t ask for cleaner water. We all go down to the stream and they fill their helmets with water. I mix the Kool-Aid in and they drink it right out of their helmets.
After the Kool-Aid the water looks mighty inviting so we decide to take a dip in the stream and wash up. I been out there so long my fatigues are beginning to walk by themselves. Jeez, talk about smelling bad. I strip down and get ready to hop in the river and bathe. The thing about the Vietnamese when they get in the water they never strip, they got their shorts on. They’re very modest. Well I strip down and I hop in and we’re all swimming around and bathing and having a merry old time.
All of a sudden the Vietnamese start making this sound, “Kluk …Kluk.” The Vietnamese are pointing and all yelling “Kluk … Kluk … Kluk.” I’m looking for a duck and they’re getting out of the water and running all over the place. But I don’t pay it any mind. I’m buck naked, backstrokin’ and spitting water into the air in a nice little fountain. All of a sudden I see these eyes looking at me in the water. Holy crap! I walk on water getting out of there. I never moved so fast in my life. I don’t know how I did it, but I am up and out of the water in a blink. The Vietnamese are standing around laughing and thinking this is hilarious. Kluk … Kluk stands for something like an alligator. It’s the sound the animal makes.
I never knew what this beast was until after Vietnam on one of our family trips to Asia. In a small rural town we’re looking at the egrets coming into roost in the evening. They are a pure white all landing in the trees, and there’s hundreds of them. I’m watching the birds and I hear “Kluk Kluk” and BAM! there goes one of the birds. It was like a huge Komodo Dragon. I got up on top of a dam and saw one that was at least nine feet long. I leaned then that Kluk Kluk meant to get out of the water … fast.
That Special Smell
I get word that I’m going back to LZ Sherry as Assistant XO (third in command). But right away I’m going out on a heliborne operation. I get to Sherry the day before the operation and I see the helipad it’s loaded with howitzer ammunition, ready to go, a small mountain of explosives. I say to the battery commander, “What’s the ammo doing on the helipad? It’s not secure.”
He says, “It’s for the heliborne tomorrow.”
I say, “I don’t think that’s wise.”
He says, “Just lump it.”
“OK. You’re the boss.”
I look for a place to hooch for the night in one of the hooches reserved for lieutenants and dump my stuff. Then I walk around talking to the various gun crews. I go to the FDC (Fire Direction Center) to get more information on the heliborne, but they do not have much. So I go back out and I begin to familiarize myself with the battery area: where the perimeter defenses are, where the ARVNs are, where the towers are, things like that.
The day is coming to a close and soon it’s night. You know how Sherry was; when it was dark it was pitch black. In the early morning hours the battery is shooting a fire mission for the infantry and I go back to the FDC to observe. That’s when I hear a call come in from a tanker stationed on our perimeter, “I’ve got movement in the wire.” He says in the wire! Whoever is on the radio is stunned, like a deer in the headlights. I literally take the handset and say, “Jesus Christ, Fire!” Because I know. And BOOM. When a tank fires it’s an entirely different sound. It fires only one round, a canister round (like an enormous shotgun shell loaded with ball bearings).
Things go into slow motion and maybe because I had been in more combat I got a familiar smell. When you have casualties the blood and the cordite from the powder mix and send out a special odor. Almost instantly I smell it and know we killed somebody. Remember at this point we’re in a fire mission, the guns are shooting in support of the infantry. At that point the guns switch to their sector fire on our own perimeter. Now it’s organized chaos. The guns are firing, there’s illumination in the air, the towers are firing machine guns.
I know we wounded a lot people just from the smell, but find out in the morning that we had killed 23 soldiers, a lot in the wire from the tank round, and more in a cluster of bushes probably from the howitzer sector fire. Those guys had Bangalore torpedoes and satchel charges. If they had gotten past the wire the howitzers would have been useless, and had they set off the ammo on the helipad that would have neutralized the battery. We would have been hard pressed to even have fired direct fire with Bee Hive rounds.
At that juncture everybody who’s anybody in our field force area has to come down and see this and take pictures. The bottom line if you look at the soldiers and the weaponry, you have a combination of NVA, sappers and VC. And of course there among the bodies is our one-armed barber. After that Judson becomes the barber. I have a picture of me sitting with Judson cutting my hair. That’s significant because this is a safe barber.
The Battle for Outpost Sara
That morning, instead on going on the heliborne operation, I go back to Betty and then out as an FO on an assault with Delta company of the 3rd Battalion of 506th Infantry.
The 506 is a regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. It’s known as The Currahees – Cherokee for ‘Stand Alone.’ Formed in 1942, it played a major role in WWII engagements on D Day and in the Battle of the Bulge.
All of the operations I go on with the 3/506 are to the north of Sherry between the battery and the village of Thien Giao. I am shocked when I see the tunnel complexes and weapons caches, and here is our firing battery sitting in the center of all this. We’re talking battalions of NVA (more than 2000 enemy soldiers). These aren’t VC or regional forces. It’s like swarming bees out there less than a mile from our perimeter.
The whole objective of the NVA is to control the area around Sherry by overrunning outpost Sara a short distance to the northeast, with the ultimate goal of taking LZ Betty (an administrative, military and logistics center south of Sherry on the coast).
You know we have superior airpower, but the 3/506 infantry is outnumbered three to one on the ground. And the maneuvering by their battalion commanders is spectacular. It’s the heaviest fighting the Currahees will encounter all year. Still we clean their clocks, and that has a lot to do with B Battery at LZ Sherry. It fires almost continuously during that period, sometimes all day and all night long. It shows the importance of what a 105 mm howitzer can do.
The commander of Delta Company is Captain Gerald Wrazen. He is a great company commander. He is on his second tour in Vietnam, and was an enlisted man for his first tour. Early on I tell Captain Wrazen I want to try something I learned in Hawaii.
Captain Jim Schlottman, who had fought at the battle of Ia Drang, shared with me a technique he learned from the NVA. He used the term belting. They belt you. The enemy gets as close as they can to you knowing that when they are close it neutralizes your ability to call in artillery because you’ll injure your own men.
I said to Captain Schlottman, “What do you do in those situations?”
He said, “That’s when you set up a false perimeter. You set up, you make a lot of noise, you leave trash laying around, and as soon as the sun sets you back up 50 or 60 yards. You wait until they come and when they hit your false perimeter you call the artillery in on top of them – HE (High Explosive) first round.
Now in Vietnam I’m still a new FO and Wrazen is pretty skeptical. He says, “We’ll see.”
When we set up our NDP (night defensive position) Wrazen wants me to register four targets on the cardinal directions. I say, “Captain Wrazen, that’s silly to do. Don’t you appreciate that if I fire four rounds north, south, east and west, you don’t think Charlie or the NVA’s gonna know we’re in the middle?”
He says, “You know Hank, I never thought of that before.”
I say, “Let me show you this.” I call B battery FDC at Sherry and give them four targets away from our position. I tell them I just want to show the company commander something. So they fire the four targets and no more than ten minutes later BA-ROOM, BA-ROOM, BA-ROOM. They mortar right in the center of those four rounds. So now Captain Wrazen gives some credence to what I’m saying.
That night as we’re setting up our position I call FDC back at Sherry with the coordinates for them to set a gun up for us. I say, “I want the base piece howitzer ready, one round, HE, and I want it fast when I call for it.” They say they’re not going to give me an HE on the first round. I say, “It’s a false perimeter, we’ll be away and off the target line.” They say as long as I call it in DANGER CLOSE they’ll do it. At this point I know the guns and I know the guys at B Battery, they know me, and I know they’ll fire for me. I was there the night of the ground attack and that means lot.
Then we set up the false perimeter. We make a lot of noise, leave a few cans laying around and then pull back about 100 yards. Early in the morning, around 2:00 AM, Charlie hits that perimeter and they open up with small arms fire. I call up FDC and right now I get one round of HE. BOOM. End of attack. Nails ‘em right there. All over. It is a total surprise to the enemy. They expect smoke, or illumination or white phosphorous. They don’t expect a first round HE.
So from that point on with our FDC and Captain Wrazen, if I want first round HE I get it. All I have to do is say DANGER CLOSE.
You see that one shot was fired off three digit grid coordinates, that was it – three digits east and three digits north from the grid coordinate. Again the importance of map reading and knowing where you are. What I do with Captain Wrazen when we’re on operations, I always make sure that the pilot takes us to where we were supposed to be. I learned my lesson at Green Valley. Then when we get on the ground and start maneuvering, my radio operator and I always count our paces off a known feature. I ask the infantry point man to do the same thing, and with Captain Wrazen we all have to agree on where we are within a couple yards.
Playing At Infantry
During this time two guys from the meteorological section up at Sandy are a little bored. So they go out to the trash dump to play infantry. They take their weapons and they want to kill some Charlie. They go out and they don’t return and are reported as missing. The infantry goes out to search and they find their three quarter ton truck but no sign of the met guys. They call for a search team with dogs and the dogs still don’t find them. Later their bodies are found decapitated.
“Who Won the World Series?”
We’re out on an operation, this time platoon sized (about 30 soldiers). We are on an air assault coming into a hot landing zone (taking fire from the ground). That is interesting because I’d already prepped the site with artillery and gunships. We’re going in and typically Captain Wrazen and I are in the lead helicopter. He’s out on the right skid and I’m on the left. You get on the skid when you’re on the final run into the LZ, so you can just hop off.
We’re over tall elephant grass and I’m on the skid. I don’t have an RTO (radio telephone operator who carries and operates the radio equipment). Wrazen won’t get me an RTO so I have to carry the thing myself. I’ve got the PRC 25 and two battery packs strapped on my back and my weapon. For me that is a lot of weight.
When we start taking fire the helicopter banks left and up, which throws me off into the elephant grass. I hit with a thud that knocks the wind out of me. My steel pot goes flying, but I hold onto my M16, which is another lesson I learned. My ears are ringing, I’m in a panic, and all I know is they’re gone and I’m the only one in this tall elephant grass. So I just start shooting, not on automatic – I learned this from the ARVNs – not to open up and empty a magazine. They had good fire discipline, knowing they only had so much ammo. I start shooting 360 degrees, a couple rounds each burst. Unknown to me the infantry had landed a few hundred yards off to my right, and they’re coming to get me. I’m still firing away and I hear this racket coming toward me. From the grass someone says, “Hank, stop shooting”
I say without even thinking, I guess from my basic training, “Who goes there?”
He say, “It’s me, Captain Wrazen.”
I say, “Who won the World Series?”
He says, “Hank, the World Series hasn’t been played yet. Stop shootin’ so we can get on with our mission.”
I am embarrassed. I grew up watching John Wayne and war movies. I’d watched enough movies that’s what I came out with. I was a Yankee fan and loved the World Series. But to be honest, I worked with some Vietnamese who spoke pretty good English. I knew Captain Wrazen but in a crisis situation like that, you’re in a panic, you revert back to your training.
The benefit of my getting thrown off the helicopter is that Captain Wrazen now realizes I need an RTO. So shortly I get my RTO and don’t have to carry the radio.
Still during this period I never know if my RTO is going to be with me or not, whether he’s going to drop the radio or have the SOI with him (Signal of Operating Instructions). Each day you go to your SOI and that gives you your radio call sign for that day (your handle). With all this going on I simply keep the call sign Joyful Orphan until I leave Vietnam. I don’t bother with the SOI because everybody knows me and knows my voice.
The next morning we do another combat assault. We are platoon size again and tromping through rice paddies. There are mama-sans planting rice. Out of nowhere I say to Captain Wrazen, “Those are not mama-sans planting rice.” Again this is something I had learned through observation in my time with the Vietnamese. I know what a mama-san planting rice looks like. These are not women squatting and planting rice. These are somebody else. We position, we engage and open fire. Now they come up men with AKs and we wipe them out. We do a search and we find their backpacks, where we find their uniforms and more women’s clothing. It was instinctive. I knew those were not women.
Napalm Up Close and Personal
In that area the enemy has tunnels and sophisticated bunker systems. We are pinned down by small arms fire, and artillery is not denting them. Captain Wrazen wants air support, so I call in the Air Force and we drop napalm. I had never dropped napalm before. These canisters come tumbling down, hitting the trees and bouncing all over the place bursting into flame. When they burst you immediately smell it and it sucks the air right out of the area. We were a little bit close, and when the platoon pulls back we don’t have hair on our arms or eyebrows.
When we get to the bunker complex we find the enemy burned to a crisp – in place and weapons in hand.
A Zippo To The Rescue
We are out on a clover leaf operation with a squad (about 10 soldiers). Typically an FO did not go out with a small unit, but I wanted to observe and learn from their tactics. We get out there and we spot a couple of VC. I think they are NVA. We follow them for about half a mile and we come under mortar, rocket and heavy weapons fire. To me that’s not a platoon of VC. The weaponry itself tells you you’ve encountered something much larger.
At that point I call in artillery from Sherry, I call in big guns from LZ Sandy, I then get the searchlights on Whiskey Mountain, and I call in gunships. They’ve got me pinned behind a rice paddy dike. My RTO falls and drops the radio, so the radio’s between him and me and there’s no way in hell he can get out to it because he’s pinned by the fire. I at least got the rice paddy dike, so I crawl back to get the radio and come back to the dike. I see the green tracers above me (every fifth round), and the fire is chewing down the dike, so I’m getting lower and lower. The gunships are overhead but they can’t tell who’s who. So I pull my Zippo lighter from my pocket, I light it and throw it over the dike and say to the pilot, “Can you see that?”
He says, “I see a flame.”
I say, “That’s it. They’re north of that flame.” It was just enough light to show the gunships where to fire. They fired and gave us enough cover to get back to our platoon in a safe area. I’ll always admire Zippo lighters because that sucker just burned and burned.
The next day I go out looking for that lighter and cannot find it. It had Snoopy on the lid, and engraved on the side was,
Yeah though I walk through the valley of death
I will fear no evil,
for I am the meanest son of a bitch in the valley.
I would have given anything to have found that lighter.
I say to Captain Wrazen, ”We were outnumbered and we were outgunned, yet they disappeared without a fight. That means something. I don’t know what it means, but something just isn’t right.”
We were just a squad against two battalions. They could have taken us on and chose not to. The reason they could disappear were the tunnel complexes. I mean this is 400 yards out from Sherry. There has to be something else going on.
Later I figure out the reason they did not want to engage us was that they were getting ready to hit Betty. If they took us on they were going to take on casualties and not be able to go after the larger target. In reality I don’t think they wanted Outpost Sara. It was a diversion so the main NVA force could position for an attack on Betty, which proved to be the case eleven days later.