Monthly Archives: May 2016

Chuck Heindrichs – Battery Commander – Part Four

The Sniper Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight

We had a sniper out to the west. A new battalion commander, it might have been Colonel Beal, flew in, landed on the pad. The helicopter shut down and we’re just standing there talking. I said, “This is not a good place to stand because over there in that wood line is a sniper. He doesn’t hit anything, but he bothers us a lot.” All of a sudden you heard this little whisp into the ground about six feet in front of us. I said, “Yeah, there he is again.” We walked away calmly, because the guy never hit anything.

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

This is one of the all time funny stories, involving all the military firepower at Sherry. The gun sections had to go out to this well south of us about a hundred yards to get their shower water for the day. I was having lunch with Colonel Beal in the mess hall, and one of the gun sections was out there pulling water, and all of a sudden there was an explosion. The kids had gone out to get water, and backing up the truck drove over a mine. The truck was destroyed but thankfully nobody was hurt

About a month later early in the morning when it was just beginning to turn light, according to the old military term begin morning nautical twilight: BMNT.

Nautical twilight is when the rising sun is still below the horizon, officially six to twelve degrees below. The term dates to the time sailors used the stars to navigate the seas; during nautical twilight most stars are visible to the naked eye. The United States military uses nautical twilight, called ‘begin morning nautical twilight’ (BMNT) and ‘end of evening nautical twilight’ (EENT), to plan tactical operations.

The definition of BMNT and EENT I heard in Ranger school was when you could see an enemy soldier in the dark and shoot him, and that distance was about the practical range of an M14 rifle, which in those days was three hundred feet. During that time in the morning twilight someone saw a Vietnamese running from that well. The guy had about two hundred yards to get to the creek bed that ran southwest of our perimeter. Everybody opened up on this guy: the Quad-50s cut loose, the Dusters opened up with their two 40 mm canons, the guys in the towers shot at him with M-60 machine guns, guys went up on the berm and emptied M-16 clips. Of course nobody hit him.

Two Tense Moments

I suspect if I were asked about tense moments during my tour at LZ Sherry when the adrenaline really flowed, it would be these two instances.

Tense Moment #1

From time to time we would get intelligence about an attack that was planned against LZ Sherry. This intelligence always had a rating, which consisted of a letter and a number. To the best of my memory the letter stood for the quality of the source and the number stood for its feasibility.

One afternoon we got a message that an A-1 report that a VC force of over three hundred was poised to attack the fire base. As would be the case, every soldier on the base sometime that day went to the berm and test fired his weapon. Every gun section rechecked direct fire lanes and reviewed their Firecracker loads. We redoubled our reviews of everything we had in our defensive plans. For example, we had C Battery at LZ Sandy north of us re-register all our TRPs around the firebase.

TRP stands for Target Registration Point: targets that are pre-determined using live fire to establish settings for the guns. Once confirmed TRPs could be fired immediately upon command without adjustment or use of a forward observer. Their value was in both speed and accuracy, however they had to be re-fired periodically to maintain their currency. The FDC at Sherry maintained close to a hundred of these TRPs for defending its sister batteries at Betty and Sandy, and for friendly units in the area. Sandy likewise maintained a set of TRPs around Sherry.

This was to make sure we were ready, and perhaps show any forward VC troops that we would be a formidable fight.

As late evening began to come on, the Air Force flew bombing sorties over free fire zones around the base to flush out any enemy formations that might have been out there. This was my first experience of being close to strafing runs by jet aircraft. As darkness came over us I imagined the pilots back at their air field in an air conditioned club having a beer.

By ten o’clock the tension across the firebase was very high and nerves frazzled. Sometime about one o’clock an AC-130 gunship arrived in the area.

The AC-130 carried as many as three Gatling mini-guns, each with six rotating barrels capable of a hundred rounds per second. It had two nicknames: “Spooky” and “Puff The Magic Dragon.” Often it went by just “Puff,” a gentle name not at all fitting its true nature.

We were instructed to start fires at prominent points on our exterior berm, which I suspect looked like a trapezoid from the air. We could hear the aircraft overhead but could not see it. We were aware that a six second burst from this airplane would put a bullet in every square yard of ground in an area the size of a football field. With fires lit, the plane went to work. The unmistakable sound of a mini-gun with its trail of tracer rounds left one in awe and rattled the nerves even more because you could see this “flying dragon peeing down on the earth.” That’s a description from a book I later read about the AC 130 gunship.

Puff The Magic Dragon ... peeing
Puff The Magic Dragon … peeing

It was a long, tense night. Sleepless for almost everyone. In the end it was quiet all night, no trace at all of an enemy force, and just another page in the history of LZ Sherry.

Tense Moment #2

We received a number of ‘suspended lot’ notices concerning small arms ammunition as well as 105 mm howitzer rounds. This meant that the lot could not be used. In addition we had dirty M-79 grenades, unusable belts of M-60 machine gun ammo, and heavens knows what else that we determined on our own had to be destroyed. We decided to gather it all up, haul it to a spot some five hundred yards north of the base, and blow the whole mess up. The XO was so excited, he salivated at the thought of going out there and blowing all this up.

We notified all the right folks of our plan, and put the information on a special artillery warning network that all pilots were supposed to monitor. Come the day we trucked all the ammo to the site and set the blast time for ten o’clock. All hands were up on the berm to see the giant explosion. The XO and his crew proceed to the site, set the explosives and timer, and returned to the base. There was now just about ten minutes to the blast.

Off in the distance we saw a Chinook helicopter coming towards us from the north. Damn! The charge has been set and could not be stopped. We called Phan Thiet frantic, and they called every network these guys might be on. But to no avail. Obviously they were not monitoring the artillery warning network and on they came. The Chinook passed directly over blast site and was probably about two minutes past when the blast erupted. To this day I wonder if those guys ever knew how close they were to a serious issue.

Chuck Heindrichs – Battery Commander – Part Three

Reefer Madness

As the convoy returned late that afternoon from Phan Thiet, the wiry old First Sergeant pulled me aside and made this recommendation: Halt the convoy just outside the east gate and have an inspection of the returning vehicles and look for marijuana. So, that’s what I did. The troops got off the trucks, flung their flack vests back on the trucks, and they waited. I was absolutely amazed at how much marijuana we collected – I mean grocery bags of the stuff. Lots of it was in the flack vests, but because the vests were piled in the trucks you couldn’t associate any of it with a particular soldier.

Now here’s where a young and naïve Captain comes into play. We collected all the stuff and placed it into a really impressive pile, maybe three feet high. I had the battery formed up and indicated that I would not tolerate drugs on the base. With the entire battery watching I poured diesel fuel on the pile and burned it all. Little did I realize how hated this made me, by not only confiscating the drugs, but then rubbing it in publically in front of everyone.

Then one day I discovered another avenue for drugs coming into the battery, at least to the Quad-50 crews. When a soldier left the firebase I often sent one of our better sergeants to escort him all the way to Cam Ranh Bay. The rationale was that some of these kids would tell you how the drugs were coming onto the firebase. The sergeant would stay with the kid until he had his boarding pass and was walking through the gate toward the airplane. All this to reassure the kid he was safe from retribution, and to keep him from telling his secrets to any incoming new guys. From one of these trips we learned that the marijuana was arriving in specially marked 50 caliber ammo boxes.

I used to complement the Quad-50 crews all the time that when their ammunition came in they were johnnie-on-the-spot getting it from the landing pad. Within ten minutes of the Chinook dropping their ammo they were there; you never had to prod those guys to get their ammo off the landing pad. The next time a load of 50 caliber ammo came in I went with the First Sergeant out to the landing pad and here comes the crew to get their ammo. I said, “Guys wait a minute. We got a telex that there is a suspended lot of ammunition and we need to pull that lot and not let it get into the system.” That was not uncommon to get a telex suspending a particular ammunition lot. I saw a few marked ammo cans, but took all eight of them.

Well the word spread that I had figured it out, when I didn’t figure anything out – one of their own had squealed on the way home. Four days after I confiscated the ammo boxes with the marijuana I woke up in a cloud of smoke. Someone had rolled a smoke grenade under my bed. I remember the next day bringing in the commander of the 4/60th and I think he replaced all of the crews, because it would have become a dangerous situation. At that time in Vietnam fragging of officers was not uncommon.

I was also dumbfounded to learn that a popular way to get drugs on base from Phan Thiet was to remove the return spring from the M-16 and come back with the stuff in the vacated chamber. Not a good idea if you had to use your weapon.

I found these few avenues of what must have been a hundred ways marijuana came onto the firebase. It was a loosing battle, but as battery commander I did what I could.

Vietnamese Platoon

Before I even arrived at Sherry the battalion commander said to me, “When you get out there you are going to see that you also have a Vietnamese infantry platoon. Your job is to get them out of there.” They were in their own sandbag bunkers between the outer and inner wires at the north end of the battery. I knew there were problems between the Vietnamese and the Americans having to do with sex. The Vietnamese had their wives and families with them. There was a little bit of hanky-panky going on, as one would suspect. They were more of a problem than if they were not there. Without them we were well capable of defending ourselves.

I remember I wasn’t there but a couple of weeks that the Dai Wi, the Vietnamese platoon leader, invited me to a TET celebration with his family (TET 70 was on Feb 5). I remember going over there for the celebration, being polite, and his wife bringing out all this food. I had no idea what I was eating, but I had this huge bottle of Coke to wash it all down. That may have been a mistake, because they thought I loved it and kept bringing it out. The Dai Wi was very gracious and gave me a souvenir picture with a nice message on the back.

Capt. Heindrichs at the TET banquet
Capt. Heindrichs at the TET banquet



I have a vague memory I told them they had to leave, but I don’t remember how I did it. We had been working with the sector commander, and it was out of my hands other than my mission to do everything I could to make sure that we did not have incidents of American GIs having sexual relations with the Vietnamese women coming on and off the base, and that I wasn’t to be the most helpful guy in the world.

A Rule With A Reason

Just a couple weeks after my TET celebration dinner we lost a Quad-50 crewman in a mortar attack. The Duster and Quad-50 guys used to sit on top of their tracks in the evening and at night. We had a rule that after 6:30 PM you wore a flack vest and you wore a helmet. This kid was not wearing his flack jacket or helmet and a piece of shrapnel went into his head just behind his ear, and it killed him.

E-4 Charles Cordle was killed on February 17, 1970, one month after Captain Heindrichs arrived at Sherry.

Two nights later I am walking by this same Quad-50 and I look up and there’s a new guy and he’s not wearing his helmet. I’m thinking, this is not just a harp-on, you’re sitting right where a guy was killed two nights ago. I pull this kid down and try to get him to understand that this is not a rule put in for no reason.

Problem Solved, Or Just Delayed?

On a convoy going into Phan Thiet the supply sergeant said to me, “Hey, you see those grey barrels over there with that orange ring around them? That would solve all of our grass problems.” We were always getting chewed out by our superiors for having too much grass growing in the wire during the rainy season. We took that stuff in the grey barrels and put it into a large tank with a spray spigot, then drove it around the perimeter spraying the vegetation. In a little while we had a desert around the firebase.

A Brown Band Around Sherry
The Brown Band Around Sherry

 We used to have generals come from miles around and bring their commands to the base for lunch. Six out of my seven months at Sherry we had the award for the best mess in that part of Vietnam. The generals would walk out on the berm and say to their staff, “This is how I want our bases to look.” Of course it was Agent Orange that did it. None of us knew what it was at the time, just that it was good for killing weeds. Guys on the back of the truck would be standing in that stuff, and I’ve always wondered if anyone ever suffered because of that.

The military sprayed twenty million gallons of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war, covering twelve percent of South Vietnam, and in concentrations averaging thirteen times the recommended application rate for use in the U.S. A number of B Battery soldiers would suffer a variety of illnesses in later life from exposure to Agent Orange.

Chuck Heindrichs – Battery Commander – Part Two

Like A Photograph

Coming out of my first Vietnam tour in May of 1967 I went to Europe for two years with my new bride. I was first in an Honest John rocket unit, then commanding officer of the 210th Artillery Group headquarters battery (generally a thankless job), and finally special staff to the US Army Europe Headquarters for six or seven months.

The most poignant story of my entire military career, including my two tours in Vietnam, happened while I was in Germany. The experience has left an image I cannot get out of my mind.

There was a massive training area in Germany called Grafenwoehr. Units from all over Europe went there to train. I was a mess hall officer with two mess units reporting to me. As such I had to attend a mandatory one-week mess officers course in Grafenwoehr.

The week before the course started there was a fire in one of the mess halls there and a young man had died. In the middle of the course they took us on a tour of that mess hall, and how they think the fire started. It had not yet been cleaned up because the investigation was still underway. I remember, like a photograph in my mind, the exit door of that kitchen. I saw handprints from this young soldier caught in the smoke feeling his way around the wall trying to find that door. The handprints ended just four feet from the door. He died of smoke inhalation. That image haunts me even today, that but for four feet he would be somewhere else today.

The Road To Sherry

After two years in Germany it was right back to Vietnam in September of 1969 for my second tour. I remember flying into Nha Trang to the airbase there. Once on the ground we were supposed to call to First Field Force Headquarters and they would send somebody to get you. I’m on the tarmac looking around and I see a truck with IFF on the bumper and with some young kid driving it. I say to him, “Are you going to First Field Force Headquarters?”

He says, “Yeah I am.”

I say, “Well, take me over there.” There were also two Armor officers trying to get to IFF HQ for reassignment, but I hop into the truck by myself.

I get to First Field Force Artillery and this guy says, “Oh yeah, here you are. We’ve got you sorted to be an advisor to a Vietnamese battalion.”

I remember looking at this major and saying, “No, that’s not going to happen.” I gave him all kinds of reasons why that was not a good idea. Then I said, “You’ve got two Armor officers sitting back at the airbase trying to figure out how to get here for reassignment. I came over here to command an artillery battery and that is what I am going to do.”

He looked at me and said, “You say there’s two captains there from Armor? They’re not supposed to be here for a week, but if they are, Okay.” And he assigned me to First Field Force Artillery. I thought, Jeez that was close.

Over at First Field Force Artillery they tell me, “We’ll try to find you a battery, but right now there are no command slots available. But our S1 (Personnel) officer, a lieutenant colonel, was injured in a helicopter crash on his way to this assignment and has been sent back to the US. We don’t have an S1, and we don’t have a colonel available, so you’re it.”

I used to be so humble because on Saturdays I would go as a representative of IFF Artillery to the weekly IFF Headquarters briefings where there were a couple brigadier generals and high ranking civilians. I walked in as this beautiful little captain with my notepad, and they’d look at me like I was the secretary. I did that for about four months. Finally they called me in and said a command slot had opened up at B Btry 5/27 and I would be leaving for Phan Thiet within the next two weeks.

Phan Thiet was the Nuc Mom capital of Vietnam. I am very fond of Asian food, especially Vietnamese, and always order the fish sauce Nuc Mom, which is the mark of a good Vietnamese restaurant. This sauce is typically made by building a flat frame some three feet square and covering it with lattice and palm tree branches. These are stacked until you get to some eight feet high. This structure is filled with raw fish on the various layers and placed in the hot sun. The fish oils drip down through each layer to a catchment container at the bottom. This oily residue is then refined into a delightful sauce, really great with rice paper rolls filled with vegetables and meat. To make this long story short, when I flew into Phan Thiet I could smell that stuff for miles on my way in.

The Road Out of Sherry

I have a lot of memories of that base. As a young second lieutenant on my first Vietnam tour it always amazed me when I talked to the old sergeants, that some of these guys could remember their World War Two experiences, they could remember Captain Brown, his wife’s name, that Captain Brown had three kids, the kids names. They couldn’t remember the names of their grandkids, but they could remember old Captain Brown from World War Two. I have that same feeling now, that I can almost close my eyes on a daily basis and picture every gun at Sherry; I can picture that marvelous mess sergeant that we had, and our Chief of Smoke who was named Duke.

I was young and naïve when I first came to the firebase. I was there about two days when the First Sergeant (Richard Durant) said to me, “We don’t go very often but we have a scheduled convoy into Phan Thiet, and let me tell you how this works. We line up the trucks and then we get these mine detectors and we do a mine sweep along the access road.” That was a dirt road leading east out of the battery to the main highway about two miles away.

Road east out of Sherry
Road east out of Sherry

I, being rather naïve, said, “I would never expect any soldier to do anything I couldn’t do. So I’ll join the mine sweeping operation.” I remember leaving the base at that southeast corner.

At zero-dark-thirty of the day (between midnight and sunrise) two teams with mine detectors started down the east road. The teams were three or four people. There needed to be a rotation about every 10 minutes or so because the high pitched whine of the detector would dull your ear such that you might not hear a serious change in pitch. The other team members walking along had a bayonet and a strong sharp wooden stick. When the detector sounded you froze, placed the detector over the spot, and one of the others would begin probing for the mine. Usually you used the stick because the bayonet might just go in between the contacts and complete the circuit. Ninety-nine percent of the time the item was a piece of shrapnel or metal.

In any case, I worked from the east gate to the creek, just to somehow prove that I would not expect a soldier to do something I would not do. I remember we had about a hundred yards to go before we hit the creek, and I’ll be damned if we didn’t find one. Most of all I remember being scared shitless.

Chuck Heindrichs – Battery Commander – Part One

Captain Chuck Heindrichs
Captain Chuck Heindrichs

West Point ’65

Battery Commander, January – August 1970

Captain Chuck Heindrichs came to LZ Sherry in January 1970 on his second tour in Vietnam. His first Vietnam tour was in 1966: leading a platoon of 155 mm self-propelled artillery attached to an Australian battalion, and then participating in Operation Junction City, one of the largest operations of the Vietnam war. Like many officers returning to Vietnam on a second tour he insisted on a combat command over a desk job. His was not a quiet time at Sherry, best described in the First Field Force newspaper three months into his command.

Artillery Review April 1970

To appreciate Chuck’s command at Sherry we begin with his early career and first tour in Vietnam … in his own words.

The Road to Vietnam

 The scenario for my class out of West Point was you went to airborne school and Ranger school, and then you went to the officers basic course for your branch training, which in my case would have been artillery at Ft. Sill. Our class, and we may have been the first, skipped the basic course and learned artillery on the fly. My first assignment out of Ranger school was to Ft. Carson, Colorado assigned to the 1st/19th Artillery, whose mission was to conduct basic training for six hundred young kids in how to shoot a rifle, wear a uniform, etc. I did that for a couple months, and did not learn much artillery in the process.

All of a sudden I learn about a 155 mm self-propelled howitzer unit on post that has alert orders for Vietnam (2nd/35th). Thinking it’s only a matter of time before I’m going to Vietnam anyway, I’ll just volunteer for that unit and maybe get my pick of assignments. But you’re a 2nd lieutenant, you’re probably going to be a forward observer no matter what.

This was going to be the first self-propelled artillery unit going into Vietnam, and we spent maybe three months putting the unit together. At that point the Army had gotten over its shyness about using armor and tracked vehicles in general. They had sent an armored unit or two over there and found out that tanks, armored personnel carriers and other tracked vehicles could get around just fine.

The Army at that time did not have jungle equipment, jungle boots, jungle fatigues or even OD olive drab underwear. There were about five hundred guys going over. They and their wives hit the local Laundromats to dye their white Army-issue underwear green. They overwhelmed the Laundromats dying t-shirts, drawers, socks and handkerchiefs. All this green dye left a residue for the next unsuspecting civilian coming in to do their regular laundry, surprised to see it coming out a light green.

We left Ft. Carson in June 1966. All the equipment went on trains headed for port, while the unit itself went up to Spokane and boarded a troop ship. I did not leave with the unit because I had gotten strep throat and had a three day delay. Rather than trying to catch me up with the troop ship they just threw me on a plane with the advance party, which left a week and a half later.

We flew on a C-130 for what felt like a week, island hopping all the way over. It was the most uncomfortable thing, because it didn’t have regular seats. It just had the flop down canvas seats on the side. Twice leaving Guam the plane was in the air for an hour, sprung an oil leak, and had to fly back and sit on the runway for repairs. Long story short, we get there and we are assigned to Second Field Force, which at that time was at Ben Hoa. They tell our battalion commander that they are going to detach one of his batteries and assign it to the Australians. I was assigned to A Battery, and as luck would have it, they sat me down and said it’s your battery that’s going to work through with the Australians. Learn all you can about their operation, figure out how to talk to them and so forth.

Chuck learned almost no artillery pushing troops through basic training at Ft. Carson . It was with the Australians that he would become a true artillery officer.

Little Toys To Big Toys

The Australians had come over with this little L5 pack howitzer, shooting the snot out of this thing and wrecking them because they were not very big. They looked like little toys. All of a sudden they’ve got these big 155 mm self-propelled coming in. They’d never used them, never even seen them, and it took a while for them to get used to the fact that these guns were used in a direct support mode. They were still leery of shooting that big a round that close to troops. It took time for them to get used to us, and we to them, and how to communicate over the radios. They also had a New Zealand contingent there, a battalion of infantry and an artillery battery.

Gordon Steinbrook, a forward observer attached to the First Australian, wrote a book based largely on correspondence with his wife. In it he says,

“Our battery fire direction officer was Lt. Chuck Heindrichs, a West Point Graduate. Chuck was loud, obnoxious, and at times overbearing. Though he had no formal artillery gunnery schooling, Chuck taught himself, and with the help of the FDC section chief he molded the Fire Direction Center into a capable organization. At handling troops, Chuck was a wizard. He could be loud and harsh one moment and the next minute put his arm around a soldier and say, ‘OK, now let’s sort this problem out.’ Chuck had a gift for keeping morale high. Chuck played the guitar, a talent all of us were to appreciate in the coming months.”

Allies and Mates: An American Soldier with the Australians and New Zealanders in Vietnam, 1966 – 1967, by Gordon L. Steinbrook

All pictures below were taken by Chuck and appear in Allies and Mates

Lt. Heindrichs at far left, next to “Gordy”
Lt. Heindrichs at far left, next to “Gordy”
Aussie L5 Howitzer
Aussie L5 Howitzer
A Battery 155 mm Howitzer
A Battery 155 mm howitzer

There was a rule in those days that if you had a hundred and twenty days or more of service left you went to Vietnam, even if it meant in four months you would be going home. Our battery XO (Executive Officer) had 138 days left when he left Ft. Carson with the main body. By the time the unit shipped by rail to port, spent thirty-two days on the ocean, and finally got to the First Australian Taskforce, he only had about sixty days of service left.

Since I went with the advance party I got to the First Australian well before him, and as a result I had gotten integrated into their tactical operations center. I learned their radio call sign system, I introduced them to the 155 mm self-propelled howitzer, I worked with their infantry guys to let them know what was coming. So I became the designated replacement for him when he left Vietnam. I went out with the infantry showing these guys what the 155 guns could do, and helped them experience calling for fire, let them get used to the size and magnitude of rounds going off relatively close to them. To be honest, it was as much a learning experience for me as for them, a learn-on-the-fly for a young officer in Vietnam.

The Wrong Red Reflector

We pulled out of the Australian unit to participate in Operation Junction City, an awfully big operation involving something like forty battalions up into Tay Ninh province and War Zone Charlie (near the Cambodian border).

Operation Junction City was an 82-day airborne operation conducted by United States and South Vietnam forces beginning on 22 February 1967. It was the largest U.S. airborne operation since WWII and the only major airborne operation of the Vietnam War. It was one of the largest U.S. operations of the war, involving the equivalent of nearly three U.S. divisions totaling around twenty thousand troops. The aim of the engagement was to locate the elusive ‘headquarters’ of the Communist uprising in South Vietnam. According to U.S. analysts such a headquarters was almost a “mini-Pentagon,” complete with typists, file cabinets and staff workers. The actual headquarters, revealed after the war by VC archives, was a small and mobile group of people sheltering in ad hoc facilities.

It always terrified me as the battery XO that somebody somehow would make a mistake. I used to walk around all night just checking and talking to the crews. I remember one night seeing the guns silhouetted against the sky and noticing one of them absolutely did not look right. I walked up to the gun sergeant and said, “Let’s look at re-laying this gun because it just does not look right to me.” And sure enough when we checked the gun was aimed in the wrong direction. And here’s how that happened. When a gun is laid using an aiming circle there are two stakes placed at 50 feet and 100 feet away – one with a green reflector and one with a red reflector. Looking through the site of the gun, when the green and red reflectors line up, along what is called the Near Far Line, you know the gun is aligned correctly and parallel to all the other guns. You then put out your permanent aiming stakes used in adjusting the direction of the gun for fire missions.

When the sergeant looked through the sight along the Near Far Line he said, “You’re right.” Then I looked through the site and said, “Wait a minute.” We walked out in front of the gun and discovered he had lined up the gun according to correct procedure, but instead of using the red reflector stake on the Near Far Line, he had used a reflector on the back of a truck.