Monthly Archives: January 2015

Alex Taubinger – Forward Observer – Part Four

Part Four

Captain K

I replaced Hank Parker as the FO with D Company of the 3/506 Infantry right after Captain Wrazen was killed (Battle of LZ Betty, February 22). The new company commander who replaced Wrazen I’ll call “Captain K.”

Captain K liked to walk trails. Everybody tried to tell him when walking a train you walk about ten yards off the trail. He’d say, “No, no. When I was with the 1st Cavalry we always walked on the trails – to get their quicker.” As a result he was the only one who walked down the middle of the trail. The rest of us walked off the trail.

Battleship New Jersey

Just south of LZ Betty we had a free strike area, which meant you could fire on anything you saw moving. The Battleship New Jersey had fired into that area, and we went down there to do damage assessment and crater analysis. On the way we saw this big mound, a VC burial pile. Captain K had people dig it up and count the bodies. We did not dig it all up, just enough to guestimate the bodies. He called in a body count of 20 VC KIA.

As we approached the impact area we encountered burned trees, which got shorter and shorter as we progressed. In the center of a completely scorched area we find two craters. You could have parked a couple deuce and a halves (two-and a half ton trucks) in there and stacked them on top of each other.

That night we set up just south of the craters. A guy on guard duty who should have known better, because this was his second tour, the first with the Marine Corps, lit a cigarette in the middle of the night. A sniper bullet went in one side of his chest, came out the other side, and hit a guy sleeping on the ground in the thigh. A Medevac comes in and takes them both to Betty.

About an hour after that we start getting ground fire and mortar fire from Buddha Mountain, a mountain about four miles from the coastline, one of those high hills that just pops up in the middle of nowhere. You could see the flashes coming from there and the mortars landing all around us.

We are so far south of Betty that we are out of their artillery range. So I call up the Jersey for fire support. The target coordinates I give them is too far for their five inch guns. Their 16 inch monsters will reach, but because we are on the target line and the high dispersion factor they say, We’d rather not.

There were incontrollable inaccuracies in every fired artillery round. The largest dispersion was always in the distance it traveled, especially at longer ranges, as opposed to its left/right flight. Anyone sitting close to the target directly between it and the howitzer (on the target line) might find the round landing uncomfortably close.

While I am on the radio with the Jersey we begin to fire into the perimeter and throw hand grenades. I take advantage of the situation and tell the Jersey, We’re under a ground attack and we need help. We aren’t, but I want them to fire that 16 incher. They agree to fire one round, and when they do the whole ocean lights up. We hear the round going over our heads like a freight train.

Battleship New Jersey firing at night
Battleship New Jersey firing at night

 When that one New Jersey round hits near Buddha Mountain everything quiets down for the rest of the night.

The next morning we start walking back up to Betty and come across the same burial mound we had dug up on the way in, which by now is stinking because we had disturbed it the day before. And Captain K calls in the body count again, saying we just found another 20 bodies. That’s the kind of guy he was. He wanted credit for a body count. Nuts! There was a body-count push then. They thought that would win the war. Each platoon had a polaroid camera at that time, to take pictures of every body to verify the body count.

Back at Betty we hear the poor guy hit in the thigh died, because a bone fragment got into his bloodstream. The guy who lit the cigarette lived. He was real chubby and the bullet missed his heart and his lungs and went clear through the fat. They ran a cleaning rod with a sulfur pad through him and sent him back out a couple days later.

The New Jersey patrolled the waters off Phan Thiet shelling targets of opportunity March 20 – 28, 1969. On April 1 she departed for Japan, having fired 5,688 rounds of 16 inch shells during her tour along the coast line in Vietnam. The one fired on Buddha Mountain was perhaps her last.

The Blue Lines

 Captain K’s real claim to fame, completely in his own mind, was: “I used to teach map reading in ranger school. I know how to read a map.” Every sergeant, every platoon leader and all the Vietnamese we worked with knew he couldn’t read a map. Hank remembers him climbing trees all the time to figure out where he was, although I never saw him do that. I do know he usually had us in the wrong place. Thank goodness he never had to call in artillery, or any kind of fire.

We are looking for some POWs somewhere along the coast line about 20 miles south of Phan Rang. The helicopters bring us in on top of a low plateau along with a South Vietnamese unit commanded by the same battalion commander who earlier rescued us and who had walked that area since the 50’s.

On this plateau it reminds me of Tarzan movies. We’re walking along toward higher ground on the side of a cliff and all of a sudden rocks start flying down on us. We are being bombarded by a bunch of baboons. Then that first night we set up two baboons trip a flare on the trail and the machine gunner just wastes them. Captain K calls it in as enemy contact and reports we killed two NVA.

We’ve been instructed to go to the third crooked blue line on our maps (signifying a creek or river). Supposedly air recon had seen smoke coming from that location. Captain K busts up the patrol, sending one platoon to the left, one to the right, and one down the center with me and the Vietnamese. We cross a dry stream bed, and of course it’s the first blue line on the map, but it’s early April in the heart of the dry season. I tell Captain K, “We crossed the first blue line.”

He says, “No, no. There’s no water in there. It can’t be a blue line.”

So we go on and cross another dry stream bed, which on our maps is the second blue line. Late that afternoon we come to a stream with water in it, the third blue line on our maps, and Captain K says, “Hm, we finally hit the first blue line.”

Captain K insists that we continue on, but it’s starting to get dark and he wants the platoons to come in to one location for the night. He tells one of the platoons to pop a flare and we would all converge on it. The platoon leader refuses, and so does the other platoon leader. “We’re not telling anybody where we are.” So Captain K has someone at his location pop a flare, and as soon as he does the Vietnamese take off saying, “This man crazy.” I take off with the Vietnamese, and half the platoon takes off with us. We go up to the top of a nearby hill and wait for the enemy mortars. Thank god the VC had taken off by then.

The next morning the camp we were looking for along with evidence they were holding prisoners. My radio operator and I go up to the top of a nearby ridge line, and from there we can see Phan Rang Air Force base in the distance, with planes taking off and landing, exactly were we were supposed to be. I go back and tell Captain K where we are, pointing out the ridge line on the map. He still insists we are further south at the first blue line.

It is Easter Sunday with no VC or NVA in the vicinity, so we decide to celebrate with a bath in the stream.

Easter Sunday bath 1969, Taubinger second from right
Easter Sunday bath 1969, Taubinger second from right

Elephant Convoy

 Another good one about Captain K. We’re up in the mountains near the Cambodian border. Three quarters of the way up the mountain we see an area where the vegetation is all flattened to the ground. I don’t know why Captain K thinks I am a jack-of-all-trades, but he tells me to come up and says, “What do you think did this?”

I see elephant turds everywhere. They’re a lot larger than a horse’s. I say, “With all the elephant shit it looks like elephants did this.”

He says, “How long ago were they here?”

“Let me take a look.” I grab a stick, kneel down, brake one of the turds apart, pull the stick up, look at it and say, “Based on what I’ve seen from big Clydesdales back in Tennessee, I’d say it was two days ago.”

He gets on the radio and calls it in as enemy activity! “VC elephant convoy came through the area two days ago.”

Everybody is laughing their heads off.

The Happy POW

We’re in the boonies hiking around and we take a break. Sgt. Thomas and I are sitting maybe 12 feet from this bush. Something does not look right. So we get up and notice this kid sitting inside the bush. He is only about 15 years old. He is a Viet Cong with a couple grenades and full VC web gear.

Captain K and POW
Captain K and POW
POW’s web gear
POW’s web gear

Somehow he got separated from his unit. We give him water and a cigarette, and he becomes very talkative to the point we cannot not shut the kid up. We hear later from the intel guys that they treated him real nice and the kid was just happy as heck he got caught.

Alex Taubinger – Forward Observer – Part Three



 I went out with the 3/506 infantry and bounced around with different units. I was with C Company when the VC and NVA hit that Special Forces camp on February 12. That was the same operation north of Sherry when Hank Parker and Captain Wrazen of D Company ran into all that trouble (three infantry companies of the 3/506 up against a heavy concentration of NVA).

Three months into my tour I was out with the 3/506 infantry setting up an ambush on a trail coming out from The Toilet Bowl.

Lt. Taubinger (right) on ambush operation with radio operator Eddie Sandoval
Lt. Taubinger (right) on ambush operation with radio operator Eddie Sandoval

Just after this picture was taken, Blackhawk (radio handle of the battalion commander) flew over in his helicopter and dropped a box of cigars for me. Inside was a note from the Red Cross saying my son Victor had just been born on March 16.

Just a Simple Little Two-Grid Sweep

We were told we’d just go out to sweep two grid squares (an area approximately one mile long and half a mile wide) at the base of Titty Mountain northeast of LZ Sherry, and then come back in. I go out there with no food, a couple canteens, a basic load of ammo and my radio operator, who was a volunteer from the 320th and who just happened to be hanging around the Operations Center at the time and who was supposed to go home within the week. We hop on these Slicks (The UH-1 Huey helicopter – the workhorse of the infantry. Called a Slick when it carried no armament of its own except a door gun on each side).

Slick transporting troops of the 3/506
Slick transporting troops of the 3/506

It’s my first combat assault. We can see all these Cobra gunships shooting up the area. I say to the commanding officer sitting next to me, “Wow, there’s something happening out there.”

He says, “Yeah, that’s where we’re going.”

All together there are three Slicks with 28 people. I am on the lead Slick with the company commander, the platoon leader, a machine gunner, three radio operators, and maybe a couple other guys. Coming in we encounter heavy ground fire. My radio guy takes three rounds in the radio he is holding between his legs and he starts shaking. I am the first one off the lead Slick; bullets are flying at us. We get on the ground in the middle of this rice paddy and we’re getting hit with everything they got – mortars, rockets, AK-47’s. We land right on top of their regimental headquarters and they must have a battalion with them judging by the fire we are taking. These are the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), the real McCoy, the guys with pith helmets with the red star on them.

Our company commander is talking on the radio to Blackhawk (radio handle of the battalion commander) who is flying around up in the DEROS zone, which is 5,000 feet or higher because the VC and NVA could not shoot down the aircraft at that height. They are having an argument about where we are on the map. Blackhawk thinks we are two miles north of Titty. I get the artillery to fire a smoke round to what we believed are our coordinates, and sure enough we are where we think we are, right next to the west ofTitty Mountain.

DEROS stands for Date of Estimated Return from Overseas, a date emblazoned in every soldier’s mind as the day he would go home. Few could say what the letters stood for, but everybody knew what they meant. Flying in the DEROS zone meant the occupants of the aircraft were more likely to see that date.

When a second set of Slicks tries to come in with the rest of the company the lead helicopter is hit, forcing all of them to turn around. That leaves just the 28 of us on the ground. We are surrounded and outnumbered about ten to one.

On the ground we are pinned down. Every time I move I take automatic fire. The only thing that comes into my head is to try an old John Wayne thing, stick a hat up. My radio guy crawls ten yards away from me while I get my M-16 ready, and using his rifle barrel lifts his helmet up just a little over the rice paddy dyke. I see tracers coming at it from behind a banana tree and I empty my whole magazine into that tree. Well, the shooting stops.

Then we crawl into a rice paddy irrigation ditch with a couple infantry guys. We’re still pinned down by fire. I want to call in artillery fire, but we can’t because there are by now too many helicopters in the air and fighter jets are on their way in.

I’m there with a platoon leader, Magouyrk, who I knew from FSB Zewart up at The Toilet Bowl. We pinpoint the location of one of the machine gun bunkers and Magouyrk says, “I’m going to get my Medal of Honor today.”

All I can think to say is, “Okay.”

I am staying hunkered down in that ditch. I reach for my canteen and see a snake crawling across my leg. I turned to an infantry guy next to me and say, “What should I do? If I stay here I might get bit. If I stand up I might get shot?”

He says, “Fuck you, sir. I’m outta here.” He takes off, and the snake goes on his way too.

I turn to look down the ditch and see Magouyrk. He says, “Come on Alex, let’s go.”

I say, “I’m not getting up.”

He stands up, runs in the direction of the machine gun bunker, and lobs a hand grenade inside, which quiets the machine gun. Magouyrk makes it back to our ditch, but on the way takes a bullet in the arm.

Then another machine gun and a mortar open up on us from a different direction. All afternoon we are under mortar and rocket attack. Three of our guys are killed and quite a few wounded. Just about everyone of us is out of ammo. This was supposed to be just a two-grid sweep, not a major firefight. The Dust-offs (Medevac helicopters) coming in for the dead and wounded also bring fresh ammo.

We decide to call in an air strike. I manage to contact the Air Force FAC (Forward Air Controller in the air in a light aircraft). I have never done this before, and I ask him if he has anything on station. He says yeah, he’s got a couple of F-4s and some 104s (both jet fighters). He tells us to mark our perimeter, which we do with smoke flares.

Soon we see the FAC plane coming in at tree top level and dropping smoke flares to mark targets for the jets. They are DANGER CLOSE, about 50 yards in front of us. The FAC says, “We’re gonna be coming in pretty close to you. Tell that idiot that’s standing up to sit down.” That idiot is me standing up taking pictures. (Alex made it out, but the pictures did not.) All of a sudden I hear this god-awful noise, an F-4 coming in straight down shooting his cannons. This thing screams, scares the heck out of me. The Air Force also comes in with napalm and 250 and 500 pound bombs.

At the same time helicopters are taking care of our flanks and rear. Of course all the enemy did was get back in their holes and smile up at the jets and helicopters. Even Hank’s unit, which was southwest of us, made an attempt to come in and get us.

Then the 69th Armor tried to come in with tanks. Someone told them the only ones alive are the gooks, and the tanks open up on us with beehive rounds. They hit five people. Our medic panics, “What do I do? These guys have got holes in the backs of their heads.” Someone tells him not to say that because the guys are still conscious.

All of a sudden the tanks back out. A recon guy from the 3/506 LRRPs (long range reconnaissance patrols) who was with the tanks told me afterward that they started getting hit from the side with B-40 rockets, so they pulled out. He told me he too got the word there were no more Americans left in that rice paddy.

Dust-offs come in to get the wounded; nobody died in the tank attack. Every time they drop down ammo for us.

We spend the whole night there. No food but plenty of ammo. First thing the next morning a South Vietnamese unit is able to break through. An older gentleman with medals up his chest and over his shoulder is the battalion commander, although he is just a captain in rank. He is a good fighter and the real deal. He jumped at Dien Bien Phu with the French.

A sweep of the contact area at daylight reveals that the enemy had fled under the cover of darkness. Two prisoners-of-war carrying important documents were captured during the sweep—one from the 240th NVA Battalion and the other from one of the Main Force Viet Cong Battalions.

I go looking for the NVA soldier behind the banana tree. He is there all right, laying on his stomach. I use my boot to turn him over and his entire mid-section is like Jello. My boot goes four inches into his body before I pull it out. He has a bag with him that I open and find full of medical supplies, even plasma IV bags. This is first class stuff. Inside the bag is a piece of paper stating, “These medical supplies were donated by the Students of Berkeley and Joan Baez.” Boy. I, my RTO and a couple of other soldiers are really pissed when we see that. We give the bag to the company commander to be turned into battalion intelligence and never hear anything more about it.

The total body count is 94 enemy and three soldiers from the 3/506th Infantry KIA. We are pulled out around 10:00 that morning.

A few months later Magouyrk gets the Distinguished Service Cross, the company commander gets a Silver Star, and there are tons of Purple Hearts given out. The company commander put me in for a Silver Star, but I did not receive it that day. Everybody keeps asking me if I got it yet even four months later. I learn later it was approved all the way up through the 101st Airborne Division level, but got killed somewhere back down at Artillery. I don’t know why.

I go out later with the Vietnamese battalion commander who helped rescue us. He wants me to walk point with him. He tells me one day, “This is the safest place because they usually let the point man through an ambush. I want you up here with me.” He has his little map folded up, and he knows exactly where he is all the time. For about a week I walk with him through the Le Hong Phong mountains northwest of Sherry. (Major stretches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through this heavily forested area.)


* Hank Parker says the tank that fired on the U.S. forces was ironically the one that had saved Sherry from the ground attack on January 12.

* The Berkeley campus was a hotbed of anti-war protest, with Joan Baez and other notables fanning the flames. However there is no evidence of direct support of the VC or NVA. Baez did join a peace delegation in 1972, under Amnesty International, to bring mail to US POWs in Hanoi. At the same time she was highly critical of the Hanoi communist regime and later of the Chinese communists. She sponsored a number of organizations dedicated to non-violence, and seems to have spread her criticism around equally. If the supplies did originate from Berkeley and Baez, they were most likely meant for humanitarian relief: civilian clinics, POWs, etc. The Viet Cong secured U.S. weapons of all kinds, including Huey helicopters. Filching civilian medical supplies or buying them on the black market was relatively easy. It was perhaps naive to believe they would not find a way into unfriendly hands, but probably not intentional.




Alex Taubinger – Forward Observer – Part Two


Nobody Parties Going Over

I deploy out of Ft. Lewis, Washington and the first place I hit is the officer’s club, and who do I run into but a lot of my classmates from Officer Candidate School from different parts of the country. One of the guys refused to get on his flight to Nam because his bags had not shown up. Duh. What do you mean your bags didn’t show up? We were not supposed to bring anything with us but underwear, socks and a toothbrush. Now another guy, who was in my unit in the 6th Infantry Division, had a reason for extra luggage. He had orders to become a general’s aid. The letter from his sponsor in Saigon said, If you don’t know how to play tennis, be sure you learn. Bring your golf clubs, and if you don’t know how to play make sure you learn. And bring a lot of short sleeve civilian shirts and shorts.

We’re all sitting in the officer’s club. The general’s aid and two or three warrant officers were already drinking when I got there. On the plane we all five of us end up in the same row. After we take off somebody pulls out a bottle of Scotch. We land in Alaska and one of the warrant officers asks if anybody’s been here before and I say, Yeah I was here on the way to Korea and there’s a bar at the end of this walkway. We went and talked the barman into selling us more Scotch. On the plane we kind of tied one on. Everybody’s quiet on the plane except our row. We’re having a good old time. We asked the stewardesses for soda water and they said they couldn’t have anything carbonated on the plane. It might blow up and we’d get hurt. So they brought us plain water and ice, and as a matter of fact a couple of them wanted to join us. One of them said, “Everybody parties on the way back; nobody parties on the way over.”

Then this Air Force full colonel comes back from about six rows in front of us. He wanted to know our names. We got silly with him and asked each other what our names were. “What is my name anyway?” He turned us all in when we landed in Saigon. This Army captain calls us out of formation and wanted to know what happened on the plane and we told him we partied on the way over because next weekend we could be dead. He said, “The Air Force guys are clearing out in about a half hour. I’m supposed to be punishing you guys, so just don’t show your faces.” 

 Forward Observer School

Right off the plane I was assigned to the 5/27 Artillery headquartered in Phan Rang, which is part of the larger 1st Field Forces covering all of central Vietnam. The first thing they did was send me to FO school up in Pleiku run .with mostly Armored 1st Cavalry guys in it.

Artillery officers entered Vietnam with formal forward observer training from Officer Candidate School. The in-country FO school was a one week refresher on the protocol for calling in fire and basic map reading. It also covered conditions unique to Vietnam – such as the rules of engagement, how to call in Air Force support, and the details of calling for Naval gun fire, which used a different sequence and worked in yards whereas the Army did everything in metric.

It was a humbling experience for an artilleryman trained at one of the Army’s excellent schools to discover on entering Vietnam 1.) How much he had forgotten over the months between graduation and finally landing in Vietnam, and 2.) How little his formal training resembled the way things were done in Vietnam: protocol, slang like another language, and shortcuts both approved and invented – all this while under mortar, rocket and sniper attack.

I first met Hank Parker during my departure to FO school. Hank had already been in country a couple months. Me and Mr. Parker – they will never forget us. Because we were not part of the 1st Cav we got to go to town a lot. One day we went to this bar. It’s after 5 o’clock curfew and the MPs come in. We show them our 1st Field Force patches, meaning they had no authority over us because they were 1st Cav. Hank told them we were attached to MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam – the umbrella organization for all forces), so they let us go.

That night while we’re still in the bar Pleiku came under attack. Here we were with no weapons. What are we going to do? I hid underneath the couch in the bar. I don’t know what Hank did. In the morning we got a ride from the 1st Cav back to base.

Our last night in Pleiku there was a party. We’re in a hooch drinking away and all of a sudden we get hit with mortars and rockets. Our side of the base was 25 yards or so from the perimeter. We run out with our weapons, and I see the silhouette of one of our guys standing on top of a bunker with arms spread out and telling people to stop shooting because he is God. All these different colored tracers, green and red, were flying around him. He had to be high on drugs.

Five or six of us tried to cram into a little one-man bunker because we were getting hit with rockets and mortars. Then everything just stopped all of a sudden.

The next day we caught a flight to the Phan Rang Air Force base on a C-123. As we were getting on the plane the pilot recognized Hank. He was Hank’s next door neighbor in Idaho. You know, Hank’s father was in the Air Force (Senior Master Sergeant, Load Master), so we got first class treatment, meaning we got to wear helmets hooked into cockpit communications and sat forward looking through glass partitions on the belly of the plane. We went out over the water on our way down the coast and all of a sudden the pilot asked Hank if he should try to dip his propellers. He flies right down over the top of the water and I swear to God the props were going to hit. It dawned on me if the props hit we’re going to go flying like a cartwheel. (No doubt a routine pilots pulled on new guys. The propellers on a C-123 sat well above the belly of the plane.) Then we buzzed a san-pan and as we approached you could see these guys standing up with their rifles shooting at us. We also buzzed a freighter as we flew over Cam Ranh Bay. The pilot came over the radio and said, “I hope they couldn’t read our tail number.”

We get to the air base to a little building, which was the passenger terminal. We saw a poster for an Australian all-girls band at the officer’s club – tonight. So we went up there and we were about as scruffy as you could get. We’re watching the show, which wasn’t worth much, drinking booze. I bought drinks for the jet jockeys with century patches, guys with 100 hours. This one major came up to Hank and called us filthy grunts. “Why don’t you oink like a pig?” Hank got into a fight with the guy, which led to them tossing both of us out.

As Hank Parker relates the incident …

Alex and I were pretty scruffy and hadn’t changed fatigues for over a week. We resisted turning our rifles in, which was the protocol at Cam Ranh at the time, but we did, however we continued to wear our .45 pistols. The major was a real jerk and finally I had had enough and said, Well let’s go outside and settle this. I was not going to strike a major and figured would come out and just order Alex and me to leave and that would be the end of it. Well holy shit he knocked the crap out of me, knocking me down. He was a big son-of-a-bitch. So I got up and charged and tackled him, swinging as he hit the ground and ripping off a shoulder patch that said, “Kill a Cong for Christ.”

It was over pretty quick. The Air Police pulled me off him and told Alex to get me to the hospital to fix my little finger, which he had nearly bitten off. At the hospital the medic said for a little guy I had really beat up the major: gave him a broken nose, two black eyes, front teeth knocked out and a broken rib. The Air Policeman butted in and said the major was a real pain in the ass, “Just list it as closing his finger in a door and hitting his head. Now hurry up, we need to get these guys out of Dodge.”

We get out to LZ Sherry and I’ve got a black eye and splinted finger. The battery commander says to Alex and me, “FO school looks like it was pretty rough.” Even though the official medical record was on my side, the battery commander did ding me on my evaluation for having poor tact. Of course Alex laughed his butt off at me.

I still have that damn patch.

The Toilet Bowl

 Out of FO school I was assigned to B Battery at LZ Sherry. The day I got there – I didn’t even get to situate myself – a helicopter picked me up and took me to a fire support base called FSB Zewart with three guns from D Battery, 2/320th Artillery (a howitzer battery under the operational control of the 5th Battalion). I was their safety officer and I also FO’d off of that hill. We were on the top of a mountain in an area called The Toilet Bowl. It looked like an old collapsed volcano and took its name from the shape of the rim. We also had a platoon from the 3/506 Infantry. I was there just three or four days.

FSB Zewart on the rim of The Toilet Bowl
FSB Zewart on the rim of The Toilet Bowl

Zewart was in the middle of an active Viet Cong Training area. We were there because there was a lot of VC activity on the trail leading into the Toilet Bowl. Just prior to coming out there the 3/506 had set up a series of ambushes and that’s how they found out it was a heavy area. They were able to capture a few prisoners.

When they shut Zewart down I was told to get on the first helicopter picking up a howitzer and head back to Betty with it, because I was scheduled to go out with the 3/506 infantry. I am on this Skycrane helicopter, the only passenger. We can’t pull the gun up because of something going wrong with the cable mechanism.

Sky crane lifting a howitzer the right way
Sky crane lifting a howitzer the right way

 We took off with quite a length of cable hanging under the chopper. The faster we went the more the cable started swinging, and it got pretty close to the tail boom. The loadmaster told the pilot to slow down because the cable was swinging so wildly. All of a sudden we heard a BOOM, and had to auto rotate down (an emergency landing procedure). The cable had hit something on the helicopter, probably the tail rotor.

Talk about protection, I mean we had jets out there and gun ships. They shot up the whole area around us. On the ground waiting to be extracted were a major, a warrant officer, a Spec 5 and me. Fortunately we were close to Betty.

Alex Taubinger – Forward Observer – Part One


Forward Observer

Part One

Lt. Taubinger
       Lt. Taubinger

Early Career

Right out of high school my best friend and I took our girlfriends to a drive-in where the only movie showing was about Army jump school, and from that we both decided we wanted to be paratroopers. The next day we went down to the recruiting station and walked in and said we wanted to be paratroopers. We had walked into the Air Force recruiting office, and the recruiter just stared at us. Then this guy down at the other end of the hall waved and yelled at us, “Down here.”

Before we could move the Air Force recruiter said, “Hold it, we need typewriter repairmen.”

Our reaction was, “What?”

We went to see the Army recruiter and he said if we made it through jump school (paratrooper training) he’d buy us a steak. I got in but my buddy did not pass any of his written exams. He was dyslexic we found out. It was good they rejected him because he became a rock musician and got to be pretty famous out on the west coast where he made a lot of money.

I did basic training at Fort Ord, California, from there to Ft. Sill in Oklahoma for cannon-cocker school, and from there to jump school at Ft. Benning, Georgia. My first assignment was at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina with the 82nd Airborne Division.

The next year I came up on orders for Korea and went to Camp St. Barbara. (An artillery camp built at the end of the Korean War just south if the demilitarized zone, and named after the patron saint of artillery.) My most vivid memory of Korea is that our dress uniform was a heavy khaki wool that we wore in the winter, which made us stand out whenever we went to headquarters. They called us the boonie rats. The only other thing I remember is there was snow on the ground when I got there, and snow on the ground a year later when I left.

I went back to Ft. Bragg where I made E-6.

Military levels are denoted by rank, such as sergeant or captain, and a corresponding pay grade. Pay grades for enlisted personnel begin with an E, while pay grades for officers begin with an O. For example, E-6 denotes a staff sergeant, while O-3 is the pay grade of a captain.

From Bragg I went to drill sergeant school at Ft. Jackson, S. Carolina in one of the first classes the Army had. I was a drill sergeant for almost two years at Ft. Gordon, Georgia and during that time I pushed about 450 kids through basic training. It was the only job I had in the Army where I felt satisfied. You could see what you’d accomplished. You get all kinds of people, some are real losers and some are pretty sharp. Then after eight weeks of basic training they went from a kid to an adult. They were self-confident.

Three Drill Sergeant Stories

One of my training platoons included part of “McNamara’s 10,000.” (Initiated in 1966 by Robert McNamara to recruit soldiers below mental or medical standards in order to meet escalating manpower requirements. Over 320,000 came through the program.) They went into the prisons and got the petty criminals and drafted them into the Army. A lot of them could not read or write.

The company first sergeant (E-8 top dog) liked to fool the new troops as they came in. He had all the drill sergeants hide. In come the buses and all the kids get off. The first sergeant told these people, “We were not expecting you today. You are lucky all the drill sergeants are in town. If they knew we’ve got a new batch of recruits they would be might pissed off because we just graduated some a couple days ago and they expected a couple weeks of rest.” Right about then we started jumping out of the barracks screaming and hollering.

I got on a guy in the back row who stood there and wet his pants. I kept on him, “Get your feet together. Get you hands to your side, you’re at attention,” yelling the whole time. He ended up in my platoon as the trainee platoon leader. (Trainees were named to leadership roles that mimicked the formal chain of command.) I came into the barracks the next morning and every single bunk was as tight as could be. As I inspected he walked around with me bouncing quarters off each one of those beds.

I said, “Where’d you learn this?”

“Prison. My buddy and I here have been in and out of the system as long as we can remember.”

This guy who pee’d in his pants graduated number one in the class. He was the best marksman, the best everything. There was only one problem. We got a call a couple of days after he graduated from basic training that he and his friend were arrested on their way home to Philadelphia. They were robbing liquor stores and gas stations on the way home.


Then there was Sclafani. I can’t remember names very well, but I’ll never forget that one. He was a male secretary to a banker in New York. This guy was so weak he could not do a single pushup. We’d walk more than a block and he’d fall apart. He was not strong enough to pick up his M-1 rifle. I grabbed his arm one day and all I felt was bone. Of course we just kept pushing him and pushing him. That was our job. But he was hopeless.

One day I’m sitting on the commode, and you remember in the old barracks they were all out in the open. Sclafani runs in and kneels down in front of me and puts his head between my knees. A sergeant is right behind him and I ask what’s going on. He says, “I yelled at him and he broke down and ran off.”

Sclafani with his head down kept saying, “I can’t take it anymore.”

So we got the paperwork together and recommended that he be discharged. A psychiatrist decided that he had to be under 24 hour watch because he had suicidal tendencies. Guess who had to be his 24-hour-a-day companion? I was told by the company commander that Sclafani would move into my room with me in the barracks and that I had to watch him at all times. I did not vary my routine, and just had him follow me everywhere. That lasted for about a week. He was one of those people just not suited for the military, not the Army anyway.


One time I almost got shot in the face. We were out on the rifle range with the trainees in holes up to their chests behind sandbag walls. I notice one kid waving his rifle around. I went over and stood over him and yelled, “Soldier!” With that he snapped to attention, jammed the butt of the rifle down next to his feet, and as he did the gun discharged inches in front of my face. The bullet barely missed my helmet. That one shook me up.

Return to Ft. Campbell

I first went to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky to help set up a new basic training center there. I brought all of the Ft. Gordon lesson plans with me, rewrote them and put my name on them. I was there for just one training cycle, about two months.

I went up for promotion to E-7, but I did not have enough time in service. I’d been in only about six years, plus I did not have enough time in grade as an E-6. The battalion commander on the promotion board recommended I go to OCS (Officer Candidate School). My comment to him was, “I don’t think my leadership capabilities are there yet. I need to spend more time as a sergeant.” That did not go over too good with him. I think I also make a comment about a lot of officers lacking leadership ability.

Later my first sergeant convinced me that I should go. He said, “Look, it’s going to take you three or four years to make E-7 even if you’re number one on the list. You’d be a captain by then.” So I got out a copy of the pay scales and looked up the pay for an E-7 versus an O-3 with ten years in the Army. There was about a $300 dollar a month difference, big money in those days. That copy of the pay scale was my motivator while at OCS. I kept it in my helmet liner.

The precise difference was $667.20 per month for an O-3 versus $381.30 for an E-7, or 75% more.

I wanted infantry OCS at Ft. Benning, Georgia because you had to be infantry to go into Military Intelligence, which was my ultimate goal. Instead they sent me into artillery at Ft. Sill, because of my math test scores.

I kind of breezed through OCS. Based on my military experience they made me the trainee battalion XO (executive officer) which gave me separate quarters from the rest of the trainees. And a lot of the topics they taught I already knew, such as military justice and map reading, and all of which I taught for two years as a drill sergeant in basic training. The only exception was fire direction control and calling in artillery fire.

Out of OCS I went to the 6th Infantry Division back at Ft. Campbell. The only highlight in that assignment was that I had to brief top ranking personnel when Martin Luther King was assassinated. They were afraid of riots in Nashville, about 60 miles away. The majority of Ft. Campbell is located in Tennessee and we were the only military unit active in the state. We got the job of putting together a plan to “keep the peace” in Nashville, and because I had spent a little time in the Nashville area I got added to the team.

There was a big tactical review scheduled for two generals, the division commander and the post commander, along with their entire staffs. A major that was in charge of giving the presentation got laryngitis during the night. At about 5 in the morning he told me I had to give the presentation. We had a big map there and talked about such things as putting the headquarters at the Parthenon in the middle of the city. I did not know much about Nashville – I’d only been in the area a few months – but I was considered an expert because I knew more than anybody else.

When the 6th was de-activated they made me a company training officer in the same basic training battalion that I helped set up back when I was a drill sergeant. The company commander was brand new and the outfit was having problems. My colonel said to go down there and make sure things were being done right.

On my first or second day I was walking around – it was close to 100 degrees – and I saw the drill sergeants sitting under a tree sipping cold drinks while the troops were marching themselves on the tarmac – or trying to march themselves.

I go up to one of the sergeants and say, “What’s happening out here?”

He says, “Well sir, today is the trainees-train-themselves day.”


He says, “Yes sir!”

I say, “Tell me, what lesson is this?” And he gives me the name and number of the lesson. I can’t today remember which lesson it was, but they were all ones I wrote and none of them involved trainees off by themselves with the drill sergeants lounging in the shade.

I get back to the office with the first sergeant and I am steamed. The first sergeant remembered me. He says, “Well you know what, you still got some of your old fatigue shirts?”


“You take the stripes off?”

I say, “Yeah, but they got these shadows where the stripes used to be.”

“Good! And you still got your Smokey the Bear hat?”


He says, “Wear that old fatigue shirt with the sergeant stripes shadow, and pin your drill sergeant badge back on along with your lieutenant bars. Hang your Smokey behind your desk or even wear it. We’re gonna have a meeting with those guys first thing in the morning before we wake up the troops.”

They all came into my office, the whole contingency, and their eyes snapped wide when they saw me. Usually officers sent to the basic training centers were either green out of OCS or ROTC graduates we called 90-day-wonders. But these guys knew right away I was a sergeant at one time … and a drill sergeant.

Straight off I said, “ I do not appreciate being lied to.”

One sergeant said, “What do you mean, being lied to?”

I said, “Here’s a copy of the lesson you were training yesterday. Look whose name is on the first page. Where does the plan say the trainees train themselves?”

Then I said, “You guys can either leave or we’re going to bring disciplinary action against you.

We got rid of four of them that very day.

Toward the end of that year after only a couple training cycles, I got orders for Vietnam. I’m married, I’ve got one kid and one on the way. Because I was an officer they would not defer me for the birth.