Monthly Archives: June 2016

Chuck Heindrichs – Battery Commander – Part Eight

Pants Optional

We had this ten round rule. When a mortar attack came you stayed under cover, but after ten mortar hits you had to come out on the guns because it could well be a ground attack disguised as a mortar attack, and then you’ve got Bangalore torpedoes and hand grenades coming at you.

This rule to stay under cover during the first wave of mortars came about from the heavy casualties suffered at Sherry during the previous summer of 1969, when crewmen manned their guns at the first mortar.

I remember the mortar attack starting. I threw my flack vest on, I threw my belt on with my .45, I put on my helmet and my boots, which were not laced, and I came running out of my hooch. I look over and see Sergeant Kelly, a big guy E-6 gun chief. He’s coming out of a hooch with two young soldiers by the back of the neck in each hand dragging these guys onto the gun and he’s yelling, “That’s the tenth round, we’re out of here.” He looks over at me and laughs. I must have been a sight in my untied books, my belt and .45 pistol, my flack vest, my helmet, and ready to fight … in my underwear. He tells me later I looked like the funniest thing in the world. 


A crazy colonel at First Field Force Artillery in Nha Trang imposed a motto on us: Not All Are Privileged To Be Artillerymen, I guess to send a message to the infantry. My battalion commander, Colonel Carl Beal, said this guy is coming down in a couple weeks and we’ve got to get that up on signs. So we make all these signs with NAAPTBA on them.

The signs were scattered around the firebase where the colonel was likely to see them, including one outside the wire facing the chopper pad. 


Not surprising the motto did not catch on. The signs persisted but in short order most of the people on the firebase couldn’t tell you what the letters meant.

Singing In The Rain

Our showers were from fifty-five gallon drums filled with water on top of a rickety frame. The water never lasted very long, especially when it had heated up a bit from the sun and was nice and warm. During monsoon season, when heavy rains came every day at almost exactly four o’clock PM, there was a daily bathing ritual with unlimited water.

Gun crews would fashion the canvas covering on their hootches to channel water into a small waterfall. We discovered that by taking Styrofoam and pouring gasoline on it, it would become a liquid for a few minutes and would then harden. It was normally used to repair leaks, and in this case to make a rigid water channel.

It was strange to the untrained eye to see soldiers standing around in the late afternoon under a hot sun with a towel, washcloth and a bar of soap in hand. Sure enough, the rains would come right on schedule, and the battery was replete with folks singing in the rain while taking a shower.

Sherry Hospitality

An American armored infantry platoon was patrolling through our area. They came into the firebase; we fed them and told them they were more than welcome to spend the night. Their lieutenant said, “No thanks. You guys get hit too much. We’re going out and set up five hundred yards away.”

We said to him, “Whatever you do, and however you operate, please do not put up a red flare.” A red flare meant a ground attack to us and triggered an automatic mad minute, firing everything we had and saturating the entire area around the firebase. Well that night someone in that infantry platoon did something that put up a red flare, and of course we cut loose.

The lieutenant came into the firebase the next morning. They had fortunately been inside their armored tracks. But they were right in front of one of our Quad-50s, which shot their vehicles up pretty good, including destroying their radio antennas. I was surprised we didn’t kill anyone.

The Gibson Jumbo

Before leaving Nha Trang to take command of Sherry, I stopped at Special Services and signed out a Gibson Jumbo 200 guitar. I wanted to bring the guitar because as a commander you always want troops to kind of like you, that you’re not just another officer coming in. You want to have some endearing attributes. I thought they might enjoy that the old man can play a couple of chords.

At the end of my tour when I got ready to turn it back in, the Special Services offices in Nha Trang had already been closed. So I left the guitar behind at Sherry for the next person. Part of me regrets leaving such a beautiful guitar behind; today it would be worth something. But I did not have the heart to take something that did not belong to me.

An Ear Inside The Fire Direction Center

Chuck ends his stories with something special, a recording taken inside the Fire Direction Center probably sometime the first half of 1970. It captures the chatter associated with a routine fire mission. Mid mission the battery comes under a mortar attack and a siren sounds bringing everyone to battle stations. The distinctive sound of the siren alone, not heard these many years, will bring a fresh chill to any guy who was at Sherry.

A cassette recorder was somehow on in FDC during a mortar attack. Unfortunately I don’t know who gave it to me or when exactly it was made. You can hear the normal talking going on for a routine fire mission, with FDC figuring up the firing data and sending it to the guns, and all of a sudden you can hear someone yell, “INCOMING.” And then you can hear the siren go off and increased activity. I am not sure anybody would understand what was going on who had not been through it; you wouldn’t know what the various sounds mean.

Below is a sound file of the recording. The recording requires that you listen carefully. Remember it was made almost half a century ago on a primitive cassette recorder, one no doubt plagued with dust and mildew. Before clicking on the sound file it would be helpful to have some hints of what to listen for:

  • FDC personnel computing, checking and sending firing data for a one-gun fire mission (Gun 1)
  • Someone announcing INCOMING in the background
  • The siren going off alerting the entire battery to an attack
  • The Dusters and Quad-50s in the background saturating the perimeter, in the event of a ground attack
  • FDC personnel figuring up counter-mortar firing data involving the entire battery of six guns, two rounds each
  • Eight rapid bangs which sound like a Duster. It may have honed in on the mortar site from the commands to the guns
  • BATTERY FIRE command, followed by the almost simultaneous sounds of all the howitzers firing. The recording ends before the second volley.
  • Note the calm, efficient atmosphere even in the course of the mortar attack

To Listen Right Click on the external link below, and select Open Link . 

Inside FDC – Mortar 

Let me know if this does not work for you. I will send you the link within an email.

Chuck Heindrichs – Battery Commander – Part Seven

Hi Ho Silver, Away!

In the middle of the day we heard this huge explosion to our east probably two hundred yards beyond the creek that crossed the access road. It was obvious somebody was putting a mine into the road, which happened a lot, and it went off. So we called Phan Thiet and immediately they sent out one of these cowboys in a little Loach observation helicopter.

Loach OH-6
Loach OH-6

The Loach was often part of a high-low team. A heavily armed Huey helicopter would be high, and the little Loach would fly low to draw fire and in would come the Huey. So here comes this guy in a Loch, but all by himself with no other helicopter. He drops onto the pad and says, “Where in the hell are the bastards?”

I get into the Loach and we fly in the direction of the explosion, and we could see this hole where mine went off and three bodies laying there. We also saw two or three other guys run toward that creek line. The pilot pulls out his .45, I pull out my .45, and he flies the Loach right up to the wood line and cruises along it ten feet above the ground. We flew up and down the wood line, and up and down the creek bed, and the whole time I’m thinking, We’re sitting in a glass bubble with a blade on top. If there’s a guy below us with a machine gun our .45s aren’t going to help much, we’re gone. What is wrong with this picture?

Navy Duds

Sometime in June 1970 a U.S. Navy destroyer off the coast of Phan Thiet invited us to come out to the ship and observe what they were doing. Unfortunately on the scheduled day there was a terrible storm and fog and the visit never happened.

In any case, they were doing experimental firing with a JATO round (Jet Assisted Take Off ) and wanted LZ Sherry to observe the impact of the rounds. JATO was a round that had a sort of rocket assisted take off mechanism. It was supposed extend the shell’s range by some five miles or so. We mutually picked a time, about two o’clock in the morning, and established a communications protocol between us and the ship. The concept was that they would tell us when a round was fired and we would listen for the explosion and perhaps even see the impact burst and be able to confirm some level of accuracy. The rounds were targeted some one to three miles from LZ Sherry.

On the first round we heard a thud when the thing hit the ground, indicating it had not exploded. The same thing on the next two rounds; all we heard were thuds. We suggested to the Navy that we would probably see these rounds on our roadway in the form of land mines. Experiment over.

Over one hundred and thirty Navy destroyers saw action in Vietnam, many of them equipped with guided missiles, and no doubt experimental weaponry of all kinds.

A Minor Mistake

At two o’clock in the morning an eight inch howitzer round from LZ Sandy exploded in an airburst right over the firebase. I came out of my bunker with my flashlight and saw the most eerie looking thing. From the ground up there was a three foot dust cloud everywhere I looked. It was like you walked out into a fog rising from the ground. I remember getting on the command net and yelling CEASE FIRE for anybody and everybody to hear, because I had no idea where the round came from.

Nobody got hurt, and no one realized until maybe midday when they looked at their trucks that something had happened. My jeep had a huge hole where a piece of shrapnel went through the passenger seat and right on through the bed of the vehicle. All of our vehicles were in sandbag revetments so there was not a great deal of damage.

I never learned what happened because I never made anything of it. I did not want to see a guy get fired. Sandy was probably firing Harassment and Interdiction and somebody fired out. If I had made something of it there would have been a full bore investigation, and I did not want to see somebody’s career destroyed because somebody on a gun or in FDC may have made an error.


There was one incident that gave me some little insight into the Buddhist religion. The engineers at Whiskey Mountain had agreed to fly in a little bulldozer to reconfigure the berm because we had some water pooling during the rainy season. The bulldozer was pushing sand around and all of a sudden it turns up a skull and some bones. Mama-san and the two young boys were out working in front of the mess hall and saw what happened. The kids got frightened and ran back to their hooch they shared with Mama-san. I learned from our interpreter that in the Buddhist religion once you bury someone if you open the grave up the spirit is released and makes trouble for the living. We ended up flying Mama-san and the kids off base for four days until we finished pushing dirt around.

In May of 1968 the battery built LZ Sherry on top of a cemetery due to its slight elevation over the surrounding rice paddies. The above ground devotional structures typical of Vietnamese cemeteries were eventually cleared away for security reasons. By the time Chuck arrived at Sherry all vestiges of the cemetery had passed away, along with the knowledge it ever existed.

Vietnamese Cemetery Outside Phan Thiet Photographed from a low flying helicopter
Vietnamese cemetery outside Phan Thiet
Photographed from a low flying helicopter

Every month we sent money to a monk for the boys’ education. Of all the questions I have about Vietnam, Were those kids in the aftermath of the war ever able to use that money, did they ever become successful?

Following the defeat of South Vietnamese forces civilian casualties were horrific, so extensive that the best estimates are rounded to the nearest ten thousand.

100,000 died fleeing he advancing North Vietnamese Army

170,000 died in re-education camps

150,000 perished in forced labor camps

200,000 were simply executed as collaborators

From R.J. Rommel, Vietnamese Democide: Estimates, Sources, and Calculations, 1997

 In the wake of these numbers the odds for Mama-san, the two boys Slick and Wan, and the several other Vietnamese civilians who worked at the firebase … were not good.

Chuck Heindrichs – Battery Commander – Part Six


We got visiting delegations regularly because of the general prominence of LZ Sherry. We were a model firebase and the brass liked to show us off. As a result we also got lots of experimental hi-tech gear for its time.

Early in 1970 the war was winding down. The last armor units were drawing down and other deactivations were proceeding. But LZ Sherry still was quite active, by the number of mortar attacks we received and intelligence that VC units were still active in the area. North of us was an infiltration route that ran north of a railroad line that was part of the national railroad running the length of the country. The railroad was elevated somewhat, allowing foot traffic behind the track without being detected. Our TPS-25 radar (ground surveillance radar) would scan this area all the time because at some point the VC would cross south and set up mortar launch sites.

It was decided at some high level that we would install a motion sensor field in the area north of the base. The installation was done with an 81 mm mortar along with a number of special rounds and firing tables. These rounds consisted of the normal fins and propellant bags. But when dropped into the mortar tube, its nose was only two inches below the top of the tube. When it fired off our Q4 counter mortar radar tracked its trajectory in order to confirm its exact ground location.

As the round impacted its performance was somewhat complicated. The head of the shell would go into the ground and immediately detach from the tail, but remain connected via an umbilical cord that provided battery power to the tail assembly. Then the tail section would deploy a set of large fins called a terra break, which would cause the tail section to stay even with the ground. At the same time a gas driven antenna would rise, looking like another weed or piece of grass.

Back in the Fire Direction Center there were monitoring devices that would receive a signal from a sensor that it had deployed successfully. Each sensor had its own number that appeared on the FDC monitor. I believe in all we had six units spread out in linear fashion for several hundred yards.

When it all worked, the scenario that played out was straightforward. When a sensor detected motion its monitor would light in FDC. If the next sensor lit up, that would indicate something moving in a particular direction. After more sensors lit up, we suspected that a group was moving through the area. And when the series of sensors stayed lit we could make conclusions as to the number of people moving through the field.

We gave each sensor a code: BLACK WIDOW ONE, BLACK WIDOW TWO, and so forth, then figured up firing data for each of the device locations. When one of the devices detected movement FDC had only to send a simple BLACK WIDOW command to the guns for them to fire immediately. The advantage was speed, because the VC were not stupid. When they were out there they could hear settings and firing commands shouted to the gun crew, they could hear the crews loading the breech. With Black Widow there were no drawn out commands – just one quiet instruction to the gun and BOOM the round went out. Of course we never knew what we were shooting at or got confirmation of any enemy kills. And we never knew how many water buffalo we killed.

Sometime following the placement of the Black Widow sensors, we were also given sets of PSIDs or Personal Sensor Intrusion Devices. These devices measured ground vibration and were placed by hand around the fire base at a distance of about three hundred yards, or as far as we cared to venture out. I believe our battery XO, who loved playing infantry and got excited about this kind of stuff, took charge of the job. Like Black Widow these devices also transmitted a signal to monitors in the FDC. We may have had an occasional hit with one of them, but attributed that to mice and other critters out there. Of course during heavy monsoon rains and heavy winds they were going off all the time. Most of the time we did not waste the ammo.

Lo-Tech Is Sometimes Better

We were used to being mortared from the north and used to the road heading east being mined. With all the air traffic between Phan Thiet and Sherry, someone noticed people digging a possible mortar emplacement in a different direction south of us. That area was a free-fire zone at night, which allowed us to blanket the area without any special fire mission approvals.

We later learned that we had destroyed a mortar unit and had killed a number of enemy troops, and that the mortars and ammo had been abandoned on the site. It may have been the first time we got feedback on destroying a mortar site. Between the intel and our howitzer fire, we nailed it.

Life and Death On One Stage

Here’s one of my favorite stories. A couple of helicopter pilots who flew for a general would sometimes stop by our base for lunch. One of them pulls me aside and says, “How would you like it if we brought a show to your firebase, some girls and a band? It’ll cost you six hundred bucks.” I go to the First Sergeant, because I did not handle the slush funds, and he gives the pilots the six hundred bucks. We schedule the show five weeks out on a Sunday afternoon at two o’clock, to be held on a specially built stage next to that half basketball court outside FDC.

Stage under construction Picture Courtesy Kim Martin
Stage under construction – supervised by small dog
Picture Courtesy Kim Martin

After I agreed to have the band come in, a command-wide ban came down forbidding assemblies to watch movies or entertainment of any kind. Apparently there had been an incident, either a mortar attack or a fragging on people waiting to get into a mess hall. So they came out with this directive. I’m kind of nervous but I am still going through with the show despite the directive.

A week before the show an infantry unit has a kid get killed in a firefight up north of us, in an area we got mortared from all the time. So our battalion commander calls me up and says, “They are going to have a memorial service for this kid that was killed, and it’s going to be at your firebase on Sunday at four o’clock.”

I thought, Oh shit.

So that Sunday at one thirty here come two helicopters with the band and two French Vietnamese girls. The band sets up on the stage, and the little back room in the Fire Direction Center becomes a changing room for the girls to get into their costumes. All the troops set up on boxes and chairs by the stage, and a lot are standing. The infantry troops, about forty guys, had already come in and were there too. The show went on with the music and the girls going through the crowd topless and sitting on laps. It was a hilarious afternoon.

But I am not personally enjoying the show. I’m standing out by my hooch with the chief of firing battery looking at the sky hoping nobody of any rank decides to drop in to see I am violating the rules of assembly. And I am looking at the clock. It gets to be three fifteen and I walk out and indicate the show has to stop, and you need to get the band and girls on their two helicopters and get them out of here.

We load them up and get their helicopters off, and from that point everybody is sworn to secrecy. Sure enough ten minutes later here comes the infantry battalion commander and his entourage of three helicopters. The chaplain sets up a memorial ceremony right at the same location we had been watching these girls put on a show. I thought, If this isn’t crazy. At two o’clock you’re watching a rock and roll show and girls doing a strip act and fooling around with the guys, hugging and kissing them and taking their hats to rub on their boobs, and an hour later on the same spot we have this very somber memorial service for a young man who had been killed. That was one of my most nervous days in all of Vietnam.

Chuck Heindrichs – Battery Commander – Part Five

How Things Got Done In Vietnam:

The Generator Story

One of the more interesting stories, we used to have this Air Force sergeant in charge of our supply logistics at Phan Rang. He wanted so bad to come out to the firebase to experience a mortar attack in combat. This guy was a nut. So the battalion commander brought him out. “This guy does us a lot of favors and just wants to come out and be with you guys.” So he stayed about four days and we had one mortar attack during that period. He thought that was the most exciting thing.

About two weeks later we get this call from Phan Thiet that they are going to bring in a supply run and they had some special boxes for us. The supply chopper arrives and they drop all this stuff off at the pad, and here’s these M60 tank Xenon searchlights, one of which we mounted on the back of a jeep.We’d drive the Xenon on the jeep around the perimeter at night. Plus it had infrared capability. If you had enemy sneaking up on you, you could see their infrared signatures.

Xenon Searchlight
Xenon Searchlight

The Air Force sergeant gives me this long lesson about the eye of a deer and a human being. If you run the Xenon light and you see a bright white pinhole off in the woods and it does not disappear, that’s an animal. It has to do with how the eye of an animal is designed and how the light reflects off the back of its eye. A water buffalo or any other animal is going to stand there and stare at the light and freeze. If it’s red and it disappears it’s probably a human being, on account of how the human eye is built. A human upon being spotted, on account if how the human eye is built,  is going to show up red and then disappear.

Then this Air Force sergeant comes out a month later and says, “I have a mini-gun for you.”

The very gun mounted in the AC-130 gunships, and also mounted in attack helicopters and larger ground vehicles.

In love with his mini-gun
In love with his mini-gun

I said, “No, that’s not gonna happen. We may have problems out here but I don’t want somebody sitting up in a tower or bunker with a mini-gun.

Then he comes back with, “I know in your Fire Direction Center you have two little 10 kw generators. What would you say if I sent you out a 30 kw generator?” And he sent the damn thing out!

30 kw generator – the size of a water buffalo
30 kw generator – the size of a water buffalo

And he sent us more lighting and wiring. This was the only time I used my electrical knowledge. The 30 kw was a three-phase generator, and I actually sat down and diagrammed all the wiring on the base so that we would balance out the three phases.

Initially the generator just sat there because I couldn’t get the First Sergeant to get the wiring trenches dug to the hooches around the firebase. Finally one night I said to him, “Top, I am really concerned about the 10 kw generators in our Fire Direction Center, because you know those things only have so many hours of life and then they’re dead. We’ll probably have to arrange for some periods during the day when we just don’t have the generators on.”

I knew that the refrigerator in his hooch where he kept his cold beer was hooked to one of those 10 kw generators. I said that to him on a Wednesday, and on Thursday morning at six o’clock this young kid is beating on my door yelling, “Sir, where do you want your wiring run?” I look outside and there’s like eighty beavers digging trenches all over the base.

The Demo

We’ve got this delegation from the Pentagon and from Ft. Sill coming out to see live fire demonstrations of defending a firebase, and they especially wanted to see a demonstration of the Firecracker round.

An airburst round that ejects bomblets high in the air, which then open fins and float spinning to earth. The fluttering fall has the appearance of a butterfly in flight. Upon impact a spring on the bottom of the bomblet throws it back into the air where it explodes at about six feet. The bomblets detonate with the energy of hand grenades. At a distance the quick succession of explosions sounds like a string of firecrackers. The 105 mm howitzer version carried eighteen bomblets. The Firecracker was effective against enemy in the open, or in positions without overhead protection.

Unfortunately the bomblets sometimes did not explode when they landed in rice paddies.  They would explode later when kicked by someone wading through the flooded field.

Twenty minutes before the delegation arrived we also shot up some test Firecracker rounds to make sure in the live demo the ordnance would come down where we thought it would.

We also had a howitzer wheeled up on the berm to fire a Beehive round, because we intended to show the delegation everything we had.

The Beehive round contained eight thousand fleshettes, and was fired like a shotgun directly at enemy during a ground attack.

Fleshettes recovered from a Beehive round fired in 1970
Fleshettes recovered from a Beehive round fired in 1970

And we planned to show them a High Explosive airburst just over the berm, where you bore site the tube and fire the round with just 3/10 of a second on it. We picked the gun that was going to do it and made damn sure it was bore sighted the way it should be.

Here comes the delegation of ten or twelve people: Pentagon desk jockeys, female officers from Ft. Sill and a handful of neophytes. I was surprise and pleased to see that one of them was my old commanding officer in my old Honest John rocket unit in Europe. He was a full bird colonel and the most unpleasant guy you could possibly imagine. Everybody hated him, but at the same time everybody loved him because at least he was predictable. His last name was Hackaday and everybody called him The Hawk. I was his HQ battery commander for five months, the most unfulfilling job I ever had. (Headquarters battery jobs involve administrative housekeeping.) Now The Hawk and I could share some laughs.

We start with a little show of bravado giving them all steel pot helmets, like going on a construction site. We walk around the firebase briefing them as to our role, where the Viet Cong are in our area, and all that phoo phoo.

Then we start the live fire demonstration with the Firecracker. We take them to the east end of the firebase near where the road leaves the base. Just over the berm and near that access road is where the Firecracker round will detonate. We explain the use of Firecracker in the self-defense of an artillery firebase, and draw their attention to the guns behind them, at the west end of the firebase, pointed in what appear to be straight up into the sky ready to fire. I move them all over to the berm close to where the Firecracker round will drop its load and instruct them all to look out. I give the XO the signal, and he fires. We’re watching the little bomblets floating and spinning down close to us, and you could hear this one guy go, “Oh my god.” I tell them all you might want to duck down a little bit in case one of them doesn’t quite go where it’s supposed to. Of course we had just fired a practice round before they arrived. They were astounded with the explosions just on the other side of the berm, basically a bunch of grenades going off.

Then we walked back to the other side of the firebase where the guns were located to demonstrate the timed airburst just over the wire. We’re on the inside of the berm looking back at the gun. It’s a little scary because that round is going over the berm not much more than two or three feet. We fired that thing and it went off about 50 feet past the berm. None of them had ever been that close to an artillery round going off. They may have seen fire demonstrations at Ft. Sill, but it would have been from the bleachers. I had told them that when an artillery shell goes off in an airburst most of the shrapnel goes straight up or forward, but some of it is going to come back so you may experience a little of that, and sure enough when the round exploded small pieces of shrapnel were raining down on them.

Then we fired the Beehive from the gun on top of the berm. I think they got what they came for. It was glorious!

Scaring visitors was one of the delights of serving at LZ Sherry.