First To Fire – Last To Leave
Motto of the Air Defense Artillery in Vietnam
An Unwelcome New Neighbor
When B Battery took up permanent residence at LZ Sherry in May of 1968 it became a stationary dot in a vast expanse of rice paddies and surrounding jungle, and an irresistible target for the enemy. The battery now lived in a constant state of worry. Foremost was protecting its own perimeter from ground attacks, which fell largely to the battery itself. Its original defenses were three guard towers with machine guns, a handful of small fighting bunkers scattered around the perimeter, and multiple rows of barbed wire festooned with trip flares, Claymore mines, barrels of phu gas, and tin cans containing rocks hung from the barbed wire so as to rattle at the slightest quiver. Soon these light defenses were reinforced by two tanks, temporarily at Sherry for maintenance in exchange for providing added perimeter security at night, and three heavy automatic weapons. The tanks took up their positions on the southern perimeter, while the heavy automatic weapons – a Quad-50 machine gun and two 40 mm cannon units – guarded the rest of the perimeter.
Despite these measures on January 12, 1969 a force of fourteen Viet Cong sappers made it to the final strand of wire and were seconds away from opening an avenue into the firebase for more sappers waiting behind them. They had approached the firebase directly in front of the tank closest to the heart of the compound. The VC perhaps figured in a calculated gamble, Take out the tank and the rest will be easy. An alert tank commander saw the lead sapper raise a rocket propelled grenade launcher to his shoulder, and before the sapper could pull the trigger the tanker fired a canister round directly into him, atomizing his lower body and killing everyone behind him.
Following the January 12 ground attack the two tanks took up permanent residence at Sherry, often leaving during the day in support of ground operations, but always returning at night. There were no more ground attacks, but the VC, and perhaps elements of the North Vietnamese Army concentrated just north of Sherry, took up a relentless campaign of deadly mortar attacks. LZ Sherry guarded the northern access routes into Phan Thiet, an important fuel and supply port. The VC did not like it there and they did not like the newly installed radar installations that gave the firebase a long look into the surrounding country. They wanted it gone.
By August, toward the end of the rainy season, the attacks had taken a devastating toll. Captain Hank Parker, executive officer and then battery commander, recalls, “Out of a full strength battery of six guns and 120 guys, we were down to three guns and 67 guys, and many of them were walking wounded. A full gun crew was eight guys, and we were struggling to find four for a gun.”
Out of Retirement
After more than six months of guarding Sherry the tanks pulled out and another Quad-50 machine gun took their place. Heavy weapons defense for the rest of B Battery’s time in Vietnam now fell to the Quad-50s and the 40 mm cannons, two antiquated but fearsome weapons belonging to the 4/60th Air Defense Artillery. Both were obsolete anti-aircraft weapons from WWII and Korea that had been given to National Guard units when jets had rendered them useless for air defense. They came out of retirement for Vietnam in the belief that the North Vietnamese would have an air assault capability using slow moving helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. When that did not occur, these anti-aircraft relics took on anti-personnel missions, guarding fire bases and supporting infantry operations. The equipment was old and in constant need of maintenance. However both were mechanically simple and at the receiving end capable of frightful carnage.
The Duster was a second generation Korean War weapon with twin cannons mounted on a tank track and firing a 40 mm round that detonated on impact. Imagine a weapon that fires 240 grenades per minute and accurate at two miles. Now imagine its twin barrels laying down fire 50 yards off a perimeter and raising a blanket of dirt into the air. Now you’ve got a pretty good idea of a Duster.
The Army quit making them in 1959. By Vietnam there were only enough Dusters left to make up three battalions, each with 64 Dusters. The 4/60th was the third and final Duster battalion to go to Vietnam in March 1967.
The Quad-50 was four 50 caliber machine guns mounted on the back of a five-ton truck. It fired a cartridge as long as your hand and could put out 2000 rounds per minute. When a 50 caliber round hit an object the shrapnel and flying debris could kill a man ten yards away. The Quad-50 first came into use during WWII, most notably in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge when American troops crossed into Germany. In Korea it picked up the nickname Whispering Death. Like the Duster, the Quad-50 became obsolete as an anti-aircraft weapon with the advent of jets. Only four Quad-50 companies made it to Vietnam, three of them attached to the three Duster battalions.
The 4/60th Duster battalion deployed across a 25,000 square mile area of operations encompassing all of II Corp and parts of I and III Corp, an extraordinary mission with just 16 Dusters, 12 Quad 50s, and less than a thousand men. Yet little two-acre Sherry merited two Dusters (First Platoon Alpha Battery) and two Quads (E Company, 41st Artillery).
In the history of B Battery at LZ Sherry the Dusters and Quads became the core of its perimeter security. Their presence bolstered the confidence of its troops and helped to establish Sherry’s reputation within the battalion. Word went around that LZ Sherry got mortared a lot but there was no way it could be overrun. The swagger arose largely from the four killing machines on its perimeter.
First To Fire – Last to Leave
The Quad-50s and Dusters were a quick reaction force, the first to return sustained automatic weapons fire when the battery came under attack. When the alert of INCOMING sounded their crews were out on their weapons and laying fire into their sectors, always under the assumption a ground attack was underway. Every Duster round and every fifth Quad-50 round was a tracer, making for quite a nighttime fireworks display.
Like the howitzer crews, during attacks the Duster and Quad-50 crews were in the open exposed to the rain of falling mortars. They took pride that they were the last to leave the field of battle. As a result they and the gun crews suffered most of the casualties at LZ Sherry.
The 4/60th battalion operations report covering the period when the Dusters and Quad-50s went to Sherry contains sobering casualty statics. During the months of May, June and July of 1969 the battalion had a total strength of 995 men. During that three month period nine were killed in action or died of battle wounds. Another 72 were wounded. None of the nine fatalities during that period were at Sherry. However it is likely that many of the 72 wounded earned their Purple Hearts at LZ Sherry given the overall level of casualties at the firebase during that period.
Over the course of their time in Vietnam the three Duster battalions and their attached units earned over a thousand Purple Hearts and suffered 211 deaths (Paul Kopsick, historian for the National Duster, Quad and Searchlight Association). Just one died at LZ Sherry. Quad-50 crewman Charles Cordle was killed on February 17, 1970 in a typical mortar/rocket attack. He was a 27 year old Specialist 4, an age and rank that suggest he was a victim of the “oldest first” draft before the lottery. He had been in Vietnam for 13 months, further suggesting he had extended his tour for an early out, common for two year draftees.
Staff Sergeant Jim Scavio, Radar Section Chief, remembers Charles.
Charles Cordle was on the Quad-50 behind my bunker. I believe his nickname was Chicken Man (don’t know why). It is my recollection that he was suppose to go home in just a few days or weeks when he died. Those guys on the quad were my best alarm that we would be hit, always shooting before the mortars hit the ground. If I was on my cot in the bunker, the noise and vibrations from the firing would make you think they were in there with you.
A Sergeant’s War
The Quads and Duster crews were an independent lot, due in part to their wide dispersion. Battalion headquarters of the 4/60th was 300 miles north at An Khe, and their fighting units were dispersed in platoons across half the land mass of Vietnam.
As a result, the war fought by the Quad-50 and Duster gunners in Vietnam was overwhelmingly a sergeant’s war, as detached platoons and firing sections found themselves under the operations control of other types of units. (Charles E. Kirkpatrick, “Arsenal,” Vietnam Magazine, Spring 1989)
At LZ Sherry the Duster and Quad-50 crews exempted themselves from the daily routines of the battery. They did not appear at morning formations, they flaunted haircut and dress standards, and of course were never caught near the standard work details that kept a firebase functioning and in good repair. The first sergeant’s favorite word for them was worthless, but no one at Sherry, including the first sergeant, was not glad to have them there.
Captain Parker sums up the prevailing feeling about the Dusters and Quad-50s.
I honestly believe that when LZ Sherry became a permanent fire support base the higher ups knew we would be an irresistible target, “like a cherry on top of an ice cream sundae,” and they were right. We fended off probes, snipers, landmines, boobie traps and outright ground assaults. We were more than a pest because we were killing NVA regulars and blocking their infiltration route. Vital to our mission was the perimeter support provided by our Duster and Quad brothers. The Quads also provided convoy support and I always felt more secure when I had “Whispering Death” behind my lead jeep. I never forgot that to get to my guns the enemy had to get by the Dusters and Quads first. These guys earned their pay and B Battery boys knew this and respected them.
The Air Defense Artillery in Vietnam did not have a single air engagement, not one. Early in Vietnam a HAWK missile unit was fired upon by a helicopter, which the crew thought belong to the North Vietnamese Army. They readied their missiles and waited eagerly for the chopper to return, which it never did. Turns out it was a U.S. helicopter that had simply mistaken them for the enemy. And that’s all there was to the anticipated air war in Vietnam.
*Special thanks to Mitch Reynolds for the box of material relating to the history of Air Defense Artillery in Vietnam.