Monthly Archives: February 2016

Dick Graham – PLL Clerk – Part Six

The Second Enemy

One night, with just a few days left on my tour, I was on guard duty in that tower near the main gate facing toward Titty Mountain. It was really dark that night. I think you remember when there was no moon in Vietnam, it was really dark, so dark the starlight scope in the tower was useless. We knew there was a possibility that the enemy might use CS gas on us because a Chinook carrying CS gas barrels due to engine problems had to drop its load. It was never recovered, and we were told to keep our gas masks handy.

CS is military grade tear gas. It burns the eyes and skin, causing its victims to shut their eyes involuntarily, vomit and fall prostrate to the ground with violent coughing, mucus discharge from the nose, disorientation, dizziness and trouble breathing.

That night, I thought I saw movement by the main gate. I called it in and was told that I couldn’t shoot because there was an ARVN unit on patrol in that direction. I kind of kept an eye on that area until I got off guard duty. I was back in my hooch when the thing went off. Someone yelled GAS when at the same time mortars started coming in.

Many thought the gas explosion and mortars were the beginning of a ground attack, picked up from stories about other firebase attacks. This night however, with illumination rounds now in the air and perimeter weapons lighting up the area with tracer rounds, that’s all the enemy had to offer, more of a tease and a harassment than a serious attack.

Captain Chuck Heindrichs, then battery commander, says of the incident, “The barrel to my recollection was set off outside the last row of concertina which would have been in the 100 yard range. The biggest impact was on the northwest of Sherry as we had a great concern for the old grandmother and the two kids in that area north of the FDC and without gas masks. Of course, after floundering around by almost everyone trying to find or dig out the gas masks, the gas had dispersed and only a few actually found and ‘donned’ their mask.”

By LZ Sherry standards this was a minor incident, but enough for a flattering mention in The Artillery Review, a newsletter published by First Field Force out of Nha Trang, dated April 17, 1970. The article also gave a nice nod to the amount of artillery fire coming from Sherry compared to the rest of II Corps (Central Highlands). 

Clipping courtesy Chuck Heindrichs
Clipping courtesy Chuck Heindrichs

The VC had rolled the CS gas barrels up near the main gate under the nose of an M-60 machine gun, a testament to their ingenuity, and proof of how dark Vietnam got that they remained invisible in front of an alert guard tower. On nights like that the dark was the second enemy.

Short Timer Crazy

 Leaving Vietnam I had to turn in most of my equipment at Phan Rang. I remember when we got down to Tan Son Nhut Airbase outside Saigon how vulnerable I felt because I did not have a steel pot helmet, or flack vest, or M-16, and did not have sandbags over my head like I was used to at Sherry. I felt out of control, scared shitless, and absolutely paranoid. I did not sleep. Instead I sat up outside the barracks because it gave me more options in case of an attack. At Sherry when we got hit you could judge the pattern of the mortars as they walked across the battery one after another. When the first one would hit and then the second one, you got an idea of where the next one would be. I was used to that.

Little Things Take You Back

 When I came home I struggled with fireworks. It was not the sound of the fireworks exploding, it was the thud when they went up that sounded just like a mortar round being fired from its tube. Most of the time when we got mortared we heard the thud when they were heading in our direction and well before they landed. You’d yell INCOMING and then if it was after dark you’d start shooting up the illumination rounds. That noise just told me I might get killed. I struggled with that for many years, and for years I never went to the fireworks display in our town. Now fortunately I don’t have an issue and I go with my grandchildren, but I think about it every time.

The same thing with helicopters. When I hear a helicopter flying by I equate that with a Medevac. I live in a small town and the hospital’s not that far from where I live, and most of the helicopters I hear are Medevacs. The sound has not changed over the years.

And certain songs, especially the one that starts with “Give me a ticket for an aeroplane.”

The Letter – released in 1967 by The Box Tops

#1 on The Billboard Rankings

Lead singer Alex Chilton was just 16 years old


Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane

Ain’t got time to take a fast train

Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home

My baby just-a wrote me a letter

The reason that stands out for me is I just wanted to get on that airplane and get back home. I’m not sure how high a quality a soldier I was because of my motivation. I did my Army job through a sense of duty to the guys with whom I served. I hated the Army; I hated every minute of it. In a letter to my parents after I made the rank of sergeant I said I couldn’t wait for my next promotion – to that of Civilian.

Dick Graham – PLL Clerk – Part Five

Mine Sweeping with Paul Dunne

Early on Paul Dunne and I got close because of our shared love for the ocean. (Paul was from Boston and Dick spent summers at the Jersey shore). The two of us volunteered for convoys into Phan Thiet because we could go swimming in the South China Sea. But to get there we had to mine sweep the gravel access road that ran from the battery out to the paved road that went into Phan Thiet. It took quite a while to mine sweep the access road. It was about two and a half miles long and there was a lot of shrapnel in the road mostly from fire missions that we had shot. When we got to the end of the road, to the bridge where Paul was killed, the bridge was made out of reinforced concrete so the medal detectors were of no use. We would visually inspect it. Then shortly after that bridge was the paved road going south into Phan Thiet, which we called 8-Bravo. You got on that and you just whipped right into Phan Thiet.

Period map showing LZ Sherry (left), access road running East to paved 8-Bravo, and bridge symbol
Period map showing LZ Sherry, access road running east to paved 8-Bravo, and bridge symbol

Three times I went on a mine sweep of that road. We just had a basic medal detector. My last time I went mine sweeping, I was using the detector and the First Sergeant, I think it was Ferrell, was behind me. He saw something that he said looked suspicious. We started probing with our bayonets and we found a mine. For the detonator they used bamboo sticks wrapped in tinfoil on the ends. They buried it deep enough so that if you walked on it you would not set it off, but if a truck went over it would go off. They used a six volt battery (the old square lantern battery) for the power source off to the side of the road wrapped in plastic. It was really ingenious! The amount of time it must have taken them to dig that hole, put that 8 inch round down there, and put the detonation mechanism together must have been many hours. The only thing that the metal detector could pick up would have been a few small wires buried several inches below the road surface. We blew up the mine with some C4. The hole it left was large enough that when you jumped down, you couldn’t be seen from the surface. That was the last time I volunteered to mine sweep the road.

After that we did not run convoys for a long time. I remember we had the First Cav for awhile working around Sherry. Their way of sweeping for mines was to run three tanks down the road, with the tracks of the outside tanks in the ditch. They guy I really felt sorry for were the ones riding around in those armored personnel carriers, which was like riding in a pop can. Those guys really took a lot of casualties.

When Paul died, that ripped me apart. It was almost like a part of me had died. It was like there was an emptiness in my soul! I just remember seeing the jeep they brought back and all this sadness.

Picture courtesy Andy Kach
Picture courtesy Andy Kach

And then you get mad and think, Fuck it. It don’t mean nothin’. And you move forward. When Rik got wounded, I was right there with him. And then when Paul got killed, I think I did it unconsciously, I tried not to get close to anybody else, so I would not have to experience that hurt again. As a means of survival. After Paul died I don’t remember being close to anyone else there.

Paul Dunne
Paul Dunne

I wrote a letter to Paul’s mother after he was killed, because I suspected she did not know what had happened because the Army never told the specifics. I wanted let her know what had happened, and my relationship with him. She sent me a thank you note with a holy card from his funeral with his picture that I still have.

The R&R That Wasn’t

While I was at Sherry we built an EM (Enlisted Men’s) club. They had a contest to name it, and I won the contest. I presented a lot of names. The winning one was The End of Mission Club. For winning the contest I got an in-country R&R to Vong Tau. Hardly anybody got in-country R&Rs.

I took a helicopter from Sherry to LZ Betty at Phan Thiet. From there I flew north to Phan Rang, from there I flew south all the way down to Saigon, and from there out to the coast to Vong Tau. The in-country R&R place right on the South China Sea was supposed to be pretty nice. But nobody told me I needed orders to get in. Once I got there they wouldn’t let me stay, because I did not have orders, so I had to go back to battalion headquarters in Phan Rang. I was pretty pissed off!

In Phan Rang I met another guy who was in some trouble with one or two Article 15s against him, and we decided to go into the city, which was definitely off-limits to GI’s. I don’t remember how we got past the MP’s, but we went to a bar, drank some Tiger Piss beer and met some girls. So much for my in-country R&R.

Americans called the local beer, Ba Muoi Ba 33, Tiger Piss, and suspected it contained formaldehyde. Dick’s End of Mission club, located behind Gun 2, later became the Fire Direction Center.

The R&R That Was

I went to Sydney, Australia for my real R&R and checked into one of the hotels on the list the Army said we were supposed to stay at. The first thing I did was take a bath. It was nice to have hot water and I sat there for an hour or two. I was amazed at now dirty the water was when I got out. I did not think I was that dirty.

Sydney was a beautiful city, about four million people. I couldn’t believe how clean it was, very unlike New York City. They were just starting to build the opera house that is now so famous. I had a wonderful time there, oh my gosh, I was ready to move there.

I rented clubs at the R&R center and went out on the golf course. It was just beautiful. You could see the ocean. On the golf course I met a couple guys who were in the construction business there. They were very gracious. They spent a lot of time showing me around and taking me to clubs. They told me I was in the wrong hotel. They told me to move to this other hotel which I did and which was right on Bondi Beach. It was gorgeous as was the beach. Most of the other guys who went to Australia spent all their time at bars where all the GIs hung out. I got to experience a lot of the culture there. And I finally got to talk to my parents over the telephone. It was great!

Coming back to Sherry, I had 77 days left. I was a short timer.

Dick Graham – PLL Clerk – Part Four

Definition of Bad

When you’re in a war situation you can get close to people in a very short period of time. You’re on guard duty together; you work together; you’re in stressful situations together. It seemed like Rik Groves and Paul Dunne and I became really close.

I have very little memory of that summer, but I have some memory of the August 12 attacks. I had just gone over to motor pool and was visiting my old Gun 2 buddies, helping out with a fire mission when the mortars hit. Paul Dunne was wounded in the arm, and Rik got a lot of shrapnel in his back. I remember him asking me how bad he was hurt. I remember saying to him, “It all depends on what your definition of bad is.” It appeared to me he had a massive amount of pock marks.

I then remember going over to Stanley and yelling “Medic.” When Doc came over he pronounced him dead. I’ll never forget Doc and me picking him up to carry him away. He was so heavy! We carried him over to near the medics’ hooch near an open area where the Medevac helicopters came in.

Back on Gun 2 I sat down in the chair the phone operator used. I was light headed and I remembered to stick my head down between my knees so I wouldn’t pass out. It had a significant effect on me! Out loud I said this expression we used to help us cope with the stress. “Fuck it. It don’t mean nothin’.” We used that a lot, even though that kind of language was not part of my vernacular as I was growing up. We used that term for a lot of different situations. Basically it was to help you cope with negative emotions often for things that did mean a lot. If you got into a fight with somebody, of if your commanding officer told you to do something you thought was stupid, you just kind of did it and said it to yourself. It was a way of dealing with your emotions. What it did for me was it stuck things down. It sort of desensitized my emotions. Some guys rationalized the casualties as being “their time to go.”

The next night Gun 3 got hit and Pyle died and the whole crew was taken out. I was ordered to man an M-60 machine gun on top of the main ammo bunker. We had gun ships flying around, and Spooky up in the air with the mini guns flew around for a long time. That night I thought for sure I was going to die.

Gun 2 was hit in the early morning hours of August 12. Gun 3 was hit late the next night, but the same calendar day.

A Twisting Tale

Shortly after Gun 3 got hit, we had some Army Rangers in the area and the First Cav. Their job was to find out who was hitting us with mortars. When they didn’t seem to have any success, these Navy Seals, five of them maybe, they came into the battery. I remember talking to one of the guys. He’d been in Vietnam for seven years. I thought, how’s this guy going to be able to live once he gets back to the United States? They were dressed like VC, in black pajamas and with Ho Chi Minh racing slicks. The first night they were out they found the guys who were hitting us and things got quiet for awhile.

Dick’s memory of these few events triggered in Hank Parker, First Sergeant Durant and Andy Kach a chain of recollections. It’s a great example of how a detail in one guy’s story triggers other people in a kind of chain reaction, resulting in a wandering narrative typical of how things happened in Vietnam. Often small details don’t agree from story to story, but that’s not important, because every guy’s story is true to him.

Hank Parker, Executive Officer:

“I am glad Dick remembered this incident because I had forgotten about it.

“We were kind of numb during that period of heavy casualties (summer of 1969). We had been doing our own patrols in that area because the infantry wasn’t giving us support and we had been raising hell with our command. Hey, we’ve got the Q-4 counter mortar radar, we’re doing crater analysis, we know where these guys are at. Why aren’t you coming out here supporting us? Apparently they did and did not tell us. They may have figured because we had an ARVN (South Vietnamese) unit with us that if they told us the word would get to the ARVNs and then out to the VC. It wasn’t speculation. When I was out with the 3/506 we had an occasion where the battalion commander said the ARVNs need mortar rounds. I remember my platoon lieutenant saying hell no, these guys have enemy within their ranks so why would we give them our mortars? The battalion commander said because I am ordering you to. So we gave them three or four mortar rounds, and that night guess what? We got them back. Only they did not know to pull the safety pins and the mortars landed without exploding. Had they pulled the pins they probably would have killed us. But they did not pull the pins and we knew then that the ARVNs had some VC with them. The lieutenant went in and raised hell with the battalion commander and I thought he was going to get court martialed.

“I talked to the First Sergeant Durant and he remembers. We had movement just in front of the tree line so we did a sector fire, and the next thing we know FDC is calling CHECK FIRE, CHECK FIRE. We’ve got an American unit out there that had not been plotted. I called the tanker on our perimeter and the tank sergeant said, ‘Let’s shine a light on them.’ When the search light went on I remember them standing up waving their arms frantically. ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.’

“When it got light they came into our perimeter with their prisoners and they were wearing black pajamas like their VC prisoners. I am not exactly sure what unit they were. We had the 3/506 Curahees of the 101st Airborne and I think the 2nd/1st Cav at that time too. The 101st had LRRPs (Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol), so it could have been them. Then again I remember that we had Special Forces in Phan Thiet and I would bet they would have donned black pajamas for this kind of operation as opposed to rangers or LRRPs.

“They brought in something for the guys to look at, and Andy Kach took pictures of all the guys up on the truck crowded around so you can’t tell what it is – and I don’t remember. Then a command helicopter and a Chinook came in and picked them up with their prisoners.”

Watching the VC

ARVNs Looking On Pictures Courtesy Andy Kach
ARVNs Looking On
Pictures Courtesy Andy Kach

Andy Kach, Ammo Section:

“A group dressed like Viet Cong walked out of the tree line in front of Tower Two, about three hundred meters out. We had our M-60 machine gun trained on them, and were waiting for clearance to fire. They were not in a free fire zone, so we were waiting for clearance to shoot. By now half the battery was out on the perimeter watching. When they were half way to the wire these guys started waving wildly, and we got word that they were five Special Ops guys bringing in prisoners. I guess it finally dawned on them to let us know who they were. Helicopters were on their way to pick them up, and by the time they got to the chopper pad the helicopters were coming in. It was all pretty quick.

“That’s when Hank took two guns, 5 and 6, out to the perimeter and fired on the riverbed. That’s also when Hank and five other guys got the notion one night to sneak out through the wire by the main gate to test the readiness of the battery for a ground attack.” 

Hank Parker:

“After that we were still pissed off that the access road was getting mined. The infantry wasn’t coming out to support us to get them. So Cerda said let’s go get them ourselves. He pulled out his black pajamas and said let’s go out there and have a little ambush on the road.

“I always wondered where Chief Cerda got his black pajamas to put on that night. They were wearing black PJs and that’s probably where Chief Cerda got his black pajamas. One of those guys must have given them to Cerda.

“So First Sergeant Durant, Chief Cerda and myself go out by Tower One at the entrance and we start wiggling our way through the wire, and Cerda got his butt caught on the wire and tripped a flare. The tower guard swings his M-60 around ready to shoot and Cerda starts yelling, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot. It’s me, Chief Cerda!” All this was after too many beers. First Sergeant says it’s the dumbest goddamn thing we ever did.”

Dick Graham – PLL Clerk – Part Three

Shower and a Shave

In the collection of pictures Dick brought back from Vietnam is this sorry field shower. The best commentary for it comes from Dick’s good friend and crew chief, Rik Groves.


“You are looking at a marvel of GI craftsmanship of the highest order and a product of real genius in the American artillerymen of 1968-69! It offered solar heating of shower water . . . way ahead of its time, I might add, and was constructed of the highest quality material that the United States government could provide. In addition, it was eco-friendly . . . consisting of re-purposed materials in keeping with our concern for the environment which would come later. Finally, no animals were harmed in the making of this shower.

“It stood and served us well near the Gun #2 parapet at LZ Sherry. Upon closer inspection I’m surprised I allowed such a sloppy area around the shower, what with all the jerry cans laying about. This photo must have been taken late in my tour when my attention to detail was flagging.” (Rik Groves in an email)

Of almost equal genius was this shaving stand that Dick built from recycled ammo boxes, complete with shaving mirror.

Shaving Stand 


I had five different battery commanders over the fourteen months I was at Sherry. I don’t remember their names or any specifics about their tenure. However, one of them brought in a Korean band and strippers one Sunday, as we were taking a lot of casualties and the morale was pretty low. They also allowed in prostitutes as a morale booster. Starting the next day guys were going to the latrine and just screaming because they all got gonorrhea. It was hilarious for me, not so much for them.

Not so hilarious was the brush growing outside our perimeter, which was getting pretty bad. It was a hazard because it was too easy for VC to sneak up on us. They tried to get people to come in and spray Agent Orange but it could not be arranged. We ended up burning it. Then of course what happened was all those varmints living out there came to the middle, which was where we were living. We had tons of snakes and rats and mice, you name it we had it. We had to deal with them for a couple weeks as I recall. We shot some of them, we set traps for others. The traps would go off all night and I remember having to reload the traps more than once before morning.

Promotion … To the Motor Pool

Sometime in August about half way through my tour, Top asked me to be a PLL clerk assigned to the motor pool. I think that the reason that I was selected was that I was one of the few college graduates at Sherry who wasn’t an officer. I don’t remember what PLL stood for, just that my job was going to be to order parts for the entire battery.

PLL stood for Prescribed Load List, military jargon for the items that each unit should have in its inventory. A PLL clerk ordered and managed repair parts, dispatched parts and equipment, and maintained all relevant records thereof.

I went back to battalion headquarters in Phan Rang for some training, though it wasn’t much. At Sherry I had an office, sort of, in a hooch and it was a mess. I don’t know if anyone did the job of a PLL clerk before I started. The hooch was a disaster. I tried to clean it up, and I’m pretty good at organizing. I suspect I may have been the first one to hold that job.

I had a hooch mate who was a Mormon and drove me nuts. I nicknamed him the preacher. He didn’t drink beer, he wouldn’t swear. Looking back it was a great testament to who he was and his faith, but he drove me nuts with his holier-than-thou attitude: “I don’t do this, and I don’t do that.” But he was a good mechanic and a good electrician, and he did a good job of maintaining the generators.

The maintenance sergeant was my boss and a great guy. He was a career soldier, I think on his third tour in Vietnam. He had been up and down the ranks. He said he got up to E-7 Sergeant First Class and then got busted down. He was an E-6 Staff Sergeant when I knew him.

He was amazing when it came to making due. We always had trouble getting brake master cylinders for our trucks.

 When the brake pedal is pushed, the brake master cylinder located inside the wheel assembly uses hydraulic pressure to push a brake pad up against the rotating brake drum.

 I would order master cylinders and they would send us handbrakes, even though we always looked carefully to make sure I was ordering the right number part. We did that continuously, but still had a problem getting master cylinders. And it was just as impossible getting brake fluid. A lot of the time the only brake we had driving our trucks was the handbrake. I remember the maintenance sergeant driving the truck, down shifting, and using the handbrake to stop. Without new master cylinders, he would take a tire inner tube and with pocket knife he’d make a brake pad for the old master cylinder, and then he’s use diesel fuel for brake fluid, which over time would eat through that rubber. Whatever worked!

The rear area didn’t have any problem at all getting parts. Their trucks always looked great, ran great. Out in the field we couldn’t get parts of any kind. A good part of the time our guns probably should not have been used, we called it red lining. They should have been redlined because of cracks in the barrels, but you couldn’t get them. During an inspection someone complained to a visiting general about not being able to get gun barrels and other parts. Shortly after that we were able to get them, and pretty much everything we needed.

One of our jobs in motor pool was to set the trip flares down at the main gate every night. One night I was setting the flares and one of the damn things went off in my hand. White phosphorous! My hand got really charred. I think everyone in Sherry unit could hear me swearing. I ran up to the medic and he put a huge amount of salve on my hand and wrapped it. You know that today I do not even have a scar there.

Dick in middle with bandaged hand
Dick in middle with bandaged hand