Monthly Archives: July 2016

Joseph DeFrancisco – Battery Commander – Part Four

A Wonderful Place

June of 1970 I am back in Vietnam. I get in country at Tan Son Nhut Airbase outside Saigon, where I am assigned to the First Field Force Provisional Artillery Group headquartered in Dalat.

The (First Field) Force Artillery Headquarters controlled three subordinate Artillery Groups, with a total strength of ten Field Artillery Battalions.   These were the 41st Artillery Group, headquartered at Phu Cat, north of Qui Nhon; the 52nd Artillery Group, at Pleiku in the Central Highlands; and the First Field Force Vietnam Provisional Artillery Group, Dalat.  Force Artillery Headquarters was in Phan Rang. From: Artillery Review,
August 25, 1971

The Prov Group had such a general name because it was among the many temporary units in Vietnam not given a permanent unit name. At the time the 5/27 was one of four or five battalions assigned to this Prov Group.

So my next stop was Dalat. It was a beautiful place high up in the mountains, a university town. It had apparently been hit during TET but by this time all the damage was swept aside and it was a rather peaceful place. I went into Prov Group headquarters with the expectation that I would get some sort of a battalion or group staff job, since I had already commanded two batteries. I knew I was going to graduate school when I finished, so I thought, Well this would be a great place for a staff job, and maybe I could read at night and get ready for graduate school.

I go into Prov Group headquarters and the group commander Colonel Tuck says, “I got just the job for you. I’ve got this wonderful firebase down near Phan Thiet.”

Of course I knew Phan Thiet and said to myself, Man, I been there.

Colonel Tuck said, “It’s a wonderful place; it’s called LZ Sherry and I’d like you to take command of it.”

I said, “But sir, I’ve already commanded two artillery batteries. I’m sure there are others who would like to have a battery command. I’d like to be a G1.” (personnel officer)

He said, “No. LZ Sherry is an isolated base, it’s all by itself. You’re far away from battalion headquarters. You’re far away from everybody. I need a strong, experienced officer to go down there to take command. What do you say?”

I said, “I’d really like to be a staff officer.”

He said, “Let’s do this. You and I are going to fly down to Sherry tomorrow. You take a look at it, meet the outgoing battery commander, and then see what you have to say.”

The flight down to Sherry as I recall was well over an hour. (about 90 air miles south) On the way down I’m thinking to myself, Here I am a captain telling a full colonel I don’t want to take command of what he thinks is the greatest firebase he has. I think I better change my attitude here.

We landed on that little landing pad beside the firebase, and I was astounded at LZ Sherry. I had never seen anything like it compared to the firebases we had when I was with the First Cav. We’d throw them up overnight, string some barbed wire, dig trenches, put up a few sandbags, and that was it. But this place was a sophisticated firebase. The rows of concertina, the guard towers. The killer was the full length concrete basketball court. When I saw that I thought, Oh my god, what is this place?

The basketball court would make the Artillery Review two months later.

Basketball - Arty Style B:W (1)

Whatever it was, I had already made up my mind I was not going to tell this O-6 commander that I did not want his firebase. I told him, “This is just wonderful. It exceeds anything I expected. I’d be happy … I’d be honored to take this unit.”

The outgoing battery commander, Captain Chuck Heindrichs, was a West Point classmate of mine. Even though we were classmates I did not know him. After that initial two hour visit I never met Captain Heindrichs again, and I never saw the Prov Group commander again the whole time I was at Sherry. He never visited, and I know I never went back to Dalat. The next time I saw Colonel Tuck was at a football game at West Point when I was on the faculty.

I think the colonel let me go back to Dalat to pick up my bags, but that was it. After I got my bags at Dalat now I had to go to Phan Rang to meet my battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Tucker (not to be confused with the Prov Group commander Colonel Tuck). He apparently had no say in the matter, or had looked at my record and said OK.

A Logical Question

This being 1970 the U.S. had already determined to get out of Vietnam. Vietnamization was going on, and we were in the throes of disengaging. In light of this, when I was getting my initial orders, I asked Lt. Col. Tucker what our mission was at Sherry. He told me number one was to stay in contact with the engineers working on Highway 1, and fire in support of them when they needed help. Number two, occasionally support armored operations in the vicinity. But the most important thing to keep foremost in mind was, Don’t get anybody killed. He said, “Make sure you have no casualties because we’re getting out of this war and politically we can’t stand casualties.”

I said to him in my naïve way, a captain talking to a lieutenant colonel, “So basically we have this very sophisticated firebase out in the middle of nowhere, and our primary mission is to take care of ourselves. So what if we were just not there?”

That did not go over well. He dismissed me saying, “We’re there and we’re going to stay there. It’s important that we show presence.”

That preyed on my mind throughout the time I was at Sherry. Here we are in the middle of nowhere, we must have close to 150 people on this firebase who can’t go anywhere or do anything outside the wire. Our mission is to take care of ourselves. Something is wrong with this picture.

The whole time I was at Sherry they would never let me off the firebase, I think because it was the kind of place they always wanted the guy in charge to be there. I left Sherry once or twice to go to a meeting in Phan Rang, but they never let me spend the night. In fact one time it was getting late and I said, “Where am I going to spend the night?” No, no, no, you got to get back, we have to have a commander on the base. I never spent a single night away from Sherry from the time I arrived to the time I left.

During Captain DeFrancisco’s tenure at Sherry the firebase sustained continued mortar attacks and a nasty recoilless rifle attack from an NVA unit. These resulted in on-going casualties, but none of them fatal.

Joseph DeFrancisco – Battery Commander – Part three

Divorce Artillery Style

I came home from Vietnam in June of ’68 and went to the advanced artillery course at Ft. Sill, happy that I’m finally going to get to go to artillery school. I get there and that is when I find out the artillery branch had split into two separate branches: Field Artillery (FA) headquartered a Ft. Sill, and Air Defense Artillery (ADA) headquartered at Ft. Bliss, Texas.

Air Defense Artillery encompasses twin 40 mm cannon Dusters, Quad-50 machine guns and searchlights. Field Artillery encompasses all sizes of howitzers. The split between the two became official in 1968 following recommendations dating back to 1963. There had been a longstanding recognition that training officers in the different skillsets for field artillery and air defense served neither well. Attempting to train hybrid FA-ADA officers simply “spawned mediocrity.” The two disciplines already had well developed training centers and a cadre of officers focused on their particular areas, therefore the split largely formalized what had become an operational reality.

Along with the split the brass insignia also changed. The brass insignia I wore in Vietnam, the crossed cannons with the missile in the middle, would become the ADA insignia. And Field Artillery would get its own new insignia, crossed cannons without the missile.


Original Artillery brass retained by ADA
Original Artillery brass retained by ADA
New Field Artillery brass
New Field Artillery brass

So we changed brass. Many of the officers who had to change their branch to ADA did not like that idea. People who had a long military background and had grown up in the military got emotional about it. They wanted to be Field Artillery. To them it was a big deal. To me it was not a big deal because I stayed in FA. If I had been assigned to ADA I might have felt differently.

After being in Vietnam for a year my time in FA school at Ft. Sill was a very enjoyable time. Just living in a house with my family. A lot of the people in the course with me I had met and befriended in Vietnam. It was a pleasant year.

Another Soul Searching Decision

At the end of that year it was time to find out where you were going next. They gave me three choices. I could go back to Germany, I could go to Ft. Knox, or I could stay at Ft. Sill. But Field Artillery brass said that no matter where you go, it’s only going to be for a year, and then you’re back in Vietnam. That was a traumatic thing for me and for my wife Lynne to learn. The only remaining option was to get out of the Army.

After a lot of soul searching we decided to stay in the Army. We stayed because at the end of my second tour in Vietnam the Army promised to send me to graduate school for an advanced degree to teach history at West Point, which was something I wanted to do. With that prospect in mind Lynne very courageously said, OK, we’ll do another year. At the time we had been married about five years. We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary in November 2015. Over the years she has been an important part of everything I’ve done.

Tough Duty

We opted to stay at Ft. Sill after artillery school. I had the further choice to become an instructor or go to a unit and I said, I’ll go to a unit. I became a battery commander in a 105 mm howitzer battalion. By the way, that was a B Battery also, 4th Battalion of the 14th Field Artillery Regiment. It was a FORSCOM battalion, so we had to go through all the FC tests.

United States Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) was a four-star general Army command whose mission was, and is still today, to prepare units across various Army branches and their families for immediate deployment anywhere in the world.

And we also shot in support of training at the artillery school. This assignment turned out to be a real leadership challenge. The war was immensely unpopular and anti-war sentiment was high. This was also the time when race riots were predominant throughout the country. Not at Ft. Sill, but my battery was about 40% African American – “black” in the vernacular of the day – and we still had a lot of racial problems. On top of that we had a lot of drug problems.

Most of the young troops in the battalion had been drafted, went through basic, went to Vietnam, and still had six to eight months left on their enlistment. Many thought they had done their share for their country by serving in Vietnam and now just wanted to get out of the Army and go home. This group had no interest in doing any more military duty, consequently some got themselves in real trouble.

Every Saturday morning I’d go visit my troops in the brig; I always had six or seven troops in jail. There were always just a few bad apples. The brig was right next to the battalion area. I’d just walk down there on a Saturday morning to see how they were doing. Even though they were in prison I had to take care of troops assigned to me. I’d see how they were doing, make sure they were being treated alright, see if they needed anything in terms of contacting relatives, checking on their medical condition. Once in awhile I would talk to them about the seriousness of their situation. How are you going to overcome this? What kind of job might you do when you get out of the Army? Most of these guys did not want to talk. When an offense was bad enough for the young men to go to Leavenworth of course they were off my books. But when they were locals, serving two weeks, thirty days, ninety days – they were still mine, still part of my roster. That part of the job was not at all happy.

Overall it was a tough assignment and a lot of hard work. In addition to the FORSCOM tests, the artillery school graded us on every exercise we shot for them. You were graded on how well your troops supported the training objectives, having the right equipment and commo gear, logistical coordination – all of this with troops most of whom did not want to be there. It was a pretty demanding job. After a year the branch was good to its word and assigned me to Vietnam.

Joseph DeFrancisco – Battery Commander – Part Two

Operation Pegasus

I got promoted to captain in Nov or Dec of 1967 at Phan Thiet, at the 2nd/7th  infantry battalion headquarters located at an airfield south of the city. Little did I know I’d be back in that same area in a couple years. Because the Army was expanding at such a terrific rate it began promoting junior officers and NCOs very quickly. It got down to two years between being commissioned as a second lieutenant and promotion to captain (two grade bumps). For me it was a little more than two years.

The beginning of the TET 68 Offensive on January 30 pulled newly minted Captain DeFrancisco  north to LZ English and then to Camp Evans into the fight associated with the Battle of Hue, one of the longest and bloodiest of the war.

Earlier that month on January 21 the Marine camp at Khe Sanh had come under a North Vietnamese ground, artillery, mortar and rocket attack that would last five and a half months.

A Shau Valley - TET '68

In April of ’68 we supported the relief of the Marines at Khe Sanh out of Camp Evans as a part of Operation Pegasus, a division size operation. Marines had been there for months under siege, and we got into some pretty horrendous firefights under substantial indirect and direct fire.

Indirect fire: from weapons that lob shells into the air from a distance, such as mortars and artillery. Direct fire: from weapons that shoot directly at a target, such as rifles, rockets and tanks.

Now these were not Viet Cong out there; it was the North Vietnamese Army. We had a lot of wounded guys on the ground that had to be lifted out. We went in under very heavy fire. In fact the first time we tried to go in the helicopter got shot up so badly we had to go back to get another helicopter. We came back and still were under heavy fire, but we got in and the battalion commander and I got out and we loaded a bunch of wounded onto the helicopter and took off. That helicopter by the time we got back was finished too. So we got in our third one that day to finish up operations.

That particular operation was right before Easter. The reason I remember, my little fire support team and a couple other guys from the infantry battalion headquarters had a big Easter brunch with our C-rations. We pooled them all together and had brunch sitting on one of the bunkers there in Khe Sanh. That one I remember very well.

The A Shau Valley Incursion

I went into the A Shau Valley as kind of a provisional battery commander, because after Khe Sanh, which was pretty tough fighting, my artillery battery commander pulled me out of the field with the infantry, to come back to work at battalion headquarters. By this time I was within about two months of PCS (permanent change of station – leaving Vietnam), but the division was ordered into the A Shau Valley and we had to have a provisional battery of just two guns up on a mountain top above the middle of the valley. And so the battalion commander said, Hey, I know I just pulled you out of the field, but we need this provisional battery and we need to get some guns up there because we can’t range the A Shau from where we are, and I need an experienced guy, and you’re it.

I went off with my two guns and a bunch of 105 mm ammo to this little mountain top inhabited by a signal detachment that was relaying information from base camp into the A Shau, and a long range reconnaissance patrol for security. There were no more than thirty-five of us on that hill top. For about two or three weeks my two guns provided fire support for several small operations, until we could establish an LZ down in the valley and then bring in a full battery.


General DeFrancisco talked about his medals only because I asked him to.  Typical of men like Joe DeFrancisco he downplays their significance. Two of them he could not remember or failed to mention the circumstances. He does however remember clearly the Easter C-Ration brunch during the relief of Khe Sanh.

 We went everywhere by helicopter and we had a lot of air assaults, a daily thing. I was always flying with the infantry battalion commander and the infantry S3 (Operations Officer). I received five or six Air Medals for numerous LZ insertions and air observation missions. Along the way I also got two Bronze Stars for Valor and a Silver Star in those operations. They all involved insertions or support for the First Cav.

The first Bronze Star was, you know what, down around LZ Sherry, because we were based at Phan Thiet for while in late ‘67. There were troops in trouble on the ground and we happened to be the only helicopter in the air. So we landed, jumped out – it was so long ago it’s hard to remember – I think it was me and the S3, and helped the folks that were in trouble. It turns out the VC were involved, and after a short exchange of gunfire they just kind of melted away. Nothing particularly harrowing.

The second Bronze Star for Valor I don’t even remember where it was. I think it was around LZ English, near the South China Sea, in a similar sort of situation. I just can’t remember the details. The Silver Star was for Operation Pegasus in the relief of the Marines at Khe Sanh. (He earned a third Bronze Star, but failed to mention it entirely.)

I also got a Purple Heart in one of these operations. We were coming into a landing zone and a helicopter got shot and I took a round. I wasn’t anything serious where I had to be evacuated. It hit me in the butt on the side. In a helicopter I always sat on a flak vest so fortunately the bullet was pretty well spent by the time it got to me. I went to the clinic where they pulled the round out like pulling out a tooth, and that was it. I still have the bullet somewhere.

Battalion Commanders

The most prominent people that stand out for me were the infantry battalion commanders, because I spent so much time with them. One was Joe Griffin who retired as a colonel. He had been one of my instructors at West Point. He was very severely wounded in Korea, in fact he had a glass eye. You could still see the scar that began high on his head and went down across his face past his eye. He was my first infantry battalion commander. A wonderful man.

I served with a very special battalion commander during the relief of Khe Sanh. At the time he was a lieutenant colonel, and later became the first African American four star general in the Army. He became a very well known and accomplished officer.

Lieutenant Colonel Roscoe Robinson was a battalion commander with the 7th Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam. For his achievements there he received the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, eleven air medals, and two Silver Stars.

 It seems battalion commanders, the good ones, were not shy about putting themselves in harm’s way.

 Even as a battalion commander you could tell this guy was very special. What made him so special was his keen understanding of the mission, what we were trying to accomplish, and what we were doing. Also his genuine care and concern for his people in the midst of war. Very, very strong character. He knew what was right, and he did what was right. I thought the world of him.

My artillery battalion commander was a great guy too. I just did not see him that often. His name was Jim Coglin, a super guy, the 1st battalion of the 21st Artillery Regiment. Direct support to the 1st Cav’s 3rd Brigade.

Summing Up

To wrap up my first tour in Vietnam I would say that I went there a very young, idealistic, officer eager to do his part for his country. I remained enthusiastic throughout that tour and I found it to be exciting, fulfilling and satisfying, except for the A Shau Valley incursion, which was a little scary.

All through TET we had little idea of what was going on back in the States; we did not realize the extent of the anti-war movement. We thought we had won TET because all of our indictors were that we had caused tremendous casualties and we had pushed back the enemy in every area he had attacked. The TET Counter Offensive in our mind was a great success. We threw the NVA out of Hue, granted they killed a lot of people; we expelled them from around Khe Sanh and lifted the siege; we went into their back pocket in the A Shau Valley and won a series of battles there. We thought we had done well.

During TET ’68 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces lost approximately 45,000 killed in action, and almost 7,000 captured. The South Vietnamese lost 2,788 KIA, and the U.S. lost 1,536 KIA.

During this time was when you had the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the killing of Bobby Kennedy, and President Johnston announcing he would not run for the presidency that year. There was a lot going on and we’re hearing about all of this, but we are in some pretty deep stuff and focused on fighting. The deterioration of national support for the war and the extent of the protest movement we did not fully understand. I didn’t and the people I was with didn’t. We had our noses and our heads deeply into combat. All that would play out to some pretty devastating effects later on.

I came home very proud of what I had done, very proud of my unit, the people I was with, and thought we all had done a really great job and done our best for our country. That is the attitude I had on the flight home. Of course it’s a lot like what we are going through now: you can’t just look at the casualties, you have to look at the political implications.


Joseph DeFrancisco – Battery Commander – Part One

Captain Joseph DeFrancisco took command of B Battery from Captain Chuck Heindrichs, a West Point classmate, in August of 1970 . The next month this article appeared in the Artillery Review.

New Face, Same Class - B:W

West Point

I grew up in an era in which most of the adult male members of my family had been in World War II. That was a defining moment for those folks and they talked about it. I wouldn’t say they dwelt on it, but there was ample conversation about their experiences in World War II. And then growing up, born in ’42, I started going to movies in the early ‘50s and there was just a plethora or World War II movies. To serve your country, at least in my community and in my mind, was a very noble thing. I grew up surrounded by those sorts of ideals and those sorts of influences. None of my relatives had ever gone to West Point. In fact very few of them had gone to college, so West Point was the epitome if you were going into the military.

I was living in Albany, New York, which is only two hours north of West Point, when the opportunity became available. I decided to try for it, and went to West Point. And that began my career. I went into the Academy in 1961 and I left active duty in 1998. My whole adult life was devoted to service to the country.

I entered West Point in the middle of the cold war and only six years away from the Korean experience. I did not know anything about the Army, and of course during my four years at West Point I did not learn a great deal about the Army either because I only saw one little piece of it. When I graduated I selected the field artillery branch because the instructors I admired most were field artillerymen. And most of the experiences I had in visiting other installations – and we visited a lot, to include the homes of all the branches – I was most impressed with artillery. That’s how I selected field artillery: not very scientific, but that’s the way it all began.

Cadet Joseph E. DeFranciso
Cadet Joseph E. DeFranciso

Remember Field Artillery was not a separate branch back then. The branch was Artillery, made up of Field Artillery and Air Defense Artillery (ADA encompassed the Dusters with their twin 40mm cannons, Quad-50 machine guns, and searchlights). An officer was expected to be able to go to field artillery or ADA. My preference was always for the howitzers of field artillery.


 Out of West Point it was mandatory that we attend Ranger school. Vietnam was starting, so the powers said, OK, we’re going to have all you Regular Army commissioned officers go to Ranger school. Unfortunately we were not authorized to go to the officer basic course in artillery. The idea was you’d pick up what you needed to know about artillery when you got to your unit.

After Ranger school I also went to airborne school, got married, and went off to my first assignment in Germany, to a field artillery battalion.

I got to Germany New Years Eve of 1965. I was astounded at the low level of the quality of training and the character of the leadership. It was far below what I expected. It may have been a function of the unit I was in, I did not know. It was a Corps artillery battalion, not assigned to a Division, that also might have made a difference. There were very few high quality officers or NCOs.

There were a lot of officers in that battalion who were reservists, called to active duty for the most recent Berlin crisis and then decided to stay. In those days – I don’t want to say bad things about the reserves because now Army Reserves and National Guard are an integral part of the Army’s operational force – but in those days there was a huge quality difference between the reserves and active duty.

When I arrived the battalion was full; they did not even have a slot for me, so they made me a commo officer. Three months later I was acting battery commander, because the battalion had been denuded of officers due to the dramatic ramp up in Vietnam.

At that point we were down to five officers. You can imagine the level and quality of leadership, and everything that goes with that. Two of my senior NCOs and one of my superior commanders were alcoholics. Sergeants went around sucking those candies filled with liquor. It was awful.

This assignment was supposed to be for three years, but luckily I was there for a brief period, only four months. Because of Vietnam the Army decided to pull two thousand artillery lieutenants out of Germany to populate the basic training centers opening across the United States.

I went to Ft. Bragg and became a basic training officer, teaching subjects such as marksmanship, customs and courtesy of the service, military law, the basic implications of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, drill and ceremony: all those things that are necessary for discipline and cohesion in the unit. I did that for nine months.

First Vietnam Tour – A Heavy Year

I went to Vietnam a field artillery first lieutenant in June of 1967, well before my time at LZ Sherry (August 1970). I spent my entire tour, a full year, with the First Cavalry Division. I joined the 1st battalion of the 21st Artillery at An Khe and went immediately up around the Kontum/ Pleiku area, which is in the highlands in the far western part of South Vietnam. After spending about five months in the battalion headquarters I was reassigned as the Artillery Liaison Officer to 2nd/7th Cavalry. It was during that time that I saw some pretty serious fighting and I got into some pretty heavy stuff with the First Cav, all a part of the TET Counter Offensive. There was the Battle of Hue. Then there was the relief of Khe Sanh, and then shortly thereafter was the incursion into the A Shau Valley. During those times I lived, worked, slept, ate, and fought with the infantry all the time. I rarely saw my artillery battalion commander, I never saw my battalion headquarters. I was with the infantry all the time.

My first job brand new in country was headquarters battery commander, a tough and thankless job. You’re basically the housekeeper. I remember my First Sergeant, a wonderful man. He helped me a great deal to keep things in perspective, and was a great help on the convoys we had to run. Our longest convoy I lead was from the Pleiku area in the western part of the Central Highlands to the Bong Son Plain on the coast of the South China Sea. I had just read Street Without Joy before going over to Vietnam. The book includes the story of a very famous ambush on Highway 19, the east-west highway across the central highlands through the Mang Yang Pass, where the Viet Minh wiped out an entire French column. My convoy went right through there.

See George Buck’s stories – who was a Duster platoon leader in that area about the same time and also ended up at Sherry, but before Joe’s time.

I went over there to fight, very young and idealistic, and all of a sudden I’m at a headquarters battery. This was not what I want to do so I volunteered to be an aerial observer and a forward observer, every now and then going out with South Vietnamese units. I spent a great deal of time learning how to adjust artillery and call in fire commands. Remember there was no artillery basic course so this was my first time learning all this. As an aerial observer I literally learned artillery on the fly.

Then I became the fire support officer, then called Artillery LNO, for the 2nd/7th Cav and that’s where I learned fire support coordination. I was responsible for all the fire planning, preparations for troops coming into LZs, and maintenance of defensive targets for various LZs and base camps.

During what was called the TET ’68 Counter Offensive we moved up to Camp Evans in the central highlands in the center of Vietnam. Evans was the 1st Cav’s Division headquarters fifteen miles north west of Hue. We flew out of there to go into the area just outside of Hue, then to relieve the Marines under siege at Khe Sanh to our west at the northern end of the A Shau Valley, and eventually to support the A Shau Valley incursion.


At the beginning of the TET Offensive in the early morning hours of January 31, 1968, a division-sized force of North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers launched a coordinated attack on the city of Hue. It would be one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War lasting almost a month. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong lost 13,246 killed. South Vietnamese killed: 452. U.S. killed: 216.

 Did some fighting around Hue after TET of ’68. I was never in Hue City itself. Instead the 2nd/7th Cav and other elements of the 1st Cav’s 3rd Brigade conducted operations around the periphery of the city. We did get into some heavy contact. At one point the fighting became so intense that some of our direct support units ran out of 105mm ammunition. At least one FO had to use naval gun fire from the battleship New Jersey, which was off-shore near Hue, to support ground operations. As any FO will tell you, this not an ideal situation given the range dispersion of naval guns.