Monthly Archives: October 2016

Ed Gaydos – Fire Direction Control – Part Three

The Dogs

In the beginning there were three. They had wandered into the firebase one by one looking for food and decided to stay: the way I imagine prehistoric wolves hung around human campfires and eventually turned themselves into dogs. Soon every howitzer platoon and section crew had its own dog, sometimes more than one. Wrinkles, matron of the FDC, did her part by having five puppies beneath Bob Christenson’s bunk in his back room. We kept one puppy and adopted the others out around the battery. Like dogs always do they went about with their masters and became voting members of the gang.

But dogs will be dogs. They started running in small packs. They established territories and fought over things that only made sense to a dog. One day I watched Wrinkles and her sister playing in the center of the compound. They belonged to different packs but were usually friendly with one another. Wrinkles found a crooked little stick, carried it near her sister and started tossing it in the air, as if to say, “Look what I got and you don’t.” Her sister now wanted that stick in the worst way and was willing to fight for it. The battle ended when Wrinkles got on top. With her fangs bared she forced her sister to a belly- up surrender. Afterwards both dogs wandered off, leaving the stick behind.

The dogs belonging to one of the guns, probably Gun 1, had a simmering feud go­ing with the Maintenance dogs. The great showdown came when the two packs met outside the FDC bunker and became a tangle of bodies and snapping jaws. The guys from the gun and Maintenance came on the scene and took up sides. More people showed up and joined sides. The men and dogs made a single mob, filling the air with screams, growls and squeals of pain.

First Sergeant Stollberg had been unhappy with the dog situation for some time and this fight ripped it for him. At formation he said, “There’s too many dogs in the battery. It’s getting to the point where it’s not sanitary, with the shit piled everywhere and God knows what they’re pissing on. So here it is. Each unit gets one dog. That’s it. Guns, you get one dog for all of you, not five. Maintenance, FDC, Mess, Radar, Dusters and quad-50s each get one, that’s one for both quads and one for both Dusters. Pick the dogs you want to keep. The rest go tomorrow.”

There was no Humane Society in Vietnam, no doggie adoption agencies. Every unit did its own job. The dogs were coaxed into sandbags and carried squirming to holes outside the compound. M16 bursts went into the bags, making them jump and give off a squeal. When the bags went quiet the dirt went in over them.

Mike Leino somehow saved Wrinkles.

Mike Leino and Wrinkles
Best pals Mike Leino and Wrinkles

Love Him Or Hate Him

I mentioned in the beginning that Top and I did not get along. He was a screamer, at times almost out of control. I remember especially the time he came striding into FDC looking for me and very mad. Red faced and his eyes rimmed in red, he screamed a foot from my face because I had failed to send in a grocery order for the mess sergeant. There’s a whole story behind why, but not important. He dressed me down in front of my crew, made me say “Yes, First Sergeant” a few times, and stomped out. The embarrassment was one thing; worse was I never knew which Top was going to show up. Because his moods were so unpredictable I worked at staying out of his way.

Even in his crazy periods Top never made a bad decision the whole time we were together. And he always looked out for his guys, never himself. As much as I disliked the man, there were moments I loved the guy. One such time came quite by surprise during monsoon season.

God’s Shower Room

July brought the monsoon season in earnest to the Central Highlands. Most evenings at four o’clock sharp, thick clouds rolled down from the mountains and brought with them torren­tial rains. Walls of water turned the ground to soup, and when the sun set a dark descended so profound that a hand held out disappeared, dissolved by the night. The veterans went about with their eyes open but blind, navigating by the picture in their heads. New guys relied on flashlights, good for only a few feet in the downpour. With the rising sun the clouds moved back to the mountains, leaving the daylight hours clear and sunny. They hung purple and sullen on the mountain tops, and always seemed to me like they were waiting to attack.

The countryside erupted in lush, violent greenery. The warm daytime air sucked up moisture and made our valley into a great, sweltering sauna. The well filled high with clear water. Puddles the size of small lakes filled the compound. Guys floated in them on air mattresses and wrestled shin deep in the water. Everywhere wet clothing dried on the concertina wire, looking like a great outdoor laundry. A new trash pit we had just dug, but had not started to use, filled to the top with muddy water. It became a readymade swimming pool, and a jeep backed to the edge became a diving platform.

The Trash Pit Flip Difficulty 6
The Trash Pit Flip – Difficulty 6

In the evening when the sun had almost set the clouds would roll down from the mountains and dump another flood on us. One evening while things were still barely visible I saw the First Sergeant strolling naked in the rain. His medicine ball stomach was leading the way, a bar of soap hung on a rope around his neck, and he was singing.

Words For Posterity

There was an incident that revealed Top’s true character, which I could admit only years later when I grew into some perspective on the man. It’s one of my favorite memories.

I was in the mess hall and the First Sergeant was at the next table. Outside two boys started wailing on each other in the center of the battery. They were crewmen on different guns, now settling an ar­gument that had been festering for weeks. Their scrawny arms flew at one another like windmills, and a crowd was forming.

Top exploded from his chair and charged out the door, me right be­hind him. He marched with long, determined strides. His face was already scarlet, which meant trouble for anyone in its kill zone. He parted the spectators with a single breaststroke, and grabbed each combatant by an arm; they looked like chicken wings in his meaty fists.

Top pulled the kids apart. He paused for the crowd to quiet. Loud enough for everybody to hear First Sergeant Stollberg, career warrior, proclaimed in the middle of a combat zone, “Don’t you boys know that violence never solves any­thing?”

Ed Gaydos – Fire Direction Control – Part Two

The Demo

 It seemed like some guys, a lot of guys come to think of it, made a kind of hobby out of gonorrhea. It wasn’t that hard to do. On a trip to Phan Thiet I was walking down a side street with a guy from Sherry. Vendors waved us over and mama-sans pulled at our sleeves, “Come see top notch girl.” My companion followed the mama-san, but first took off his wedding ring and said, “I always take the ring off. Then it don’t mean nothin’.”

Five days after convoys to Phan Thiet—I could count them—soldiers lined up outside First Sergeant Stollberg’s hooch begging for a medical pass. They held their crotches while Top yelled at them. Then at formation the next morning he yelled at everybody. His tirades were aimed squarely at an audience of teenagers away from home for the first time, full of empty threats and crude references to male anatomy, which always got their attention.  “You come back with the clap, you’ll never see the rear again the rest of your goddamn tour. Tell you what, I’m going to start giving Article 15s for damaging Army property. Your dick belongs to Uncle Sam, you hear me? You can play with it all you want, but you bring it back dripping, I’ll have your ass.”

Top invited the battalion surgeon out to give us a talk on the ravages of venereal disease in Vietnam. The doctor said that one strain had no cure. Top interrupted him with, “In other words, you go to Japan and wait for your dick to rot off.” But the gonorrhea kept on, taking heavy casualties after every convoy.

Formation on this day was next to Gun 2. We fell in at ease while Top stood with his hands behind his back. We knew something important was coming when Top skipped the section chief reports. He got straight to the point. “Every time one of you goes to Phan Thiet you come back with a sore dick. So I give you a pass to get a shot in your ass. In a month you come back holding it in your hand again and crying for another pass. Well I’m sick of it. Goddamn fucking sick of it. So I’m going to help you out.”

Top reached into his pocket with his left hand and pulled out something small and square. “A lot of you have never seen one of these. It’s called a condom. When I was a kid we called ‘em rubbers.” He smiled, but in a wicked sort of way. “And for you momma’s boys who don’t know how to use one, I’m gonna show you right now. Pay attention.”

Top pulled his right hand from behind his back and held up a broom. He held it in the middle of the handle. “This is you.” Guys elbowed each other and pointed to the broom handle. Top thought a moment, “Well maybe this ain’t exactly you.” He slid his hand up to near the end. “Is that more like it?” Everyone looked at somebody else. More elbowing, some laughing, a dangerous thing to do in one of Top’s formations, but he let it go.

Top slipped the broom under his armpit, and went to open the condom. He struggled with it, ignoring the free advice com­ing from the formation. Finally he bit the corner and got the slippery thing out in the open. He then sent it into battle. He showed the tactical positioning on the tip of the broom handle. He demonstrated the maneuver of unrolling it. When he came to the last step he said, “You can’t pull this thing on like a sock. You got to leave some room at the end.” He snapped the little empty hat at the end of the condom. Everybody laughed and guys started punching each other on the shoulder.

Top ended the formation with a promise. “I got a whole case of these in my hooch. You come in and get a handful before going to the rear. They’re free. No excuses. You come back with the clap, I’m not shittin’ I’ll cut the goddamn thing off.”


Not long after this I was at the latrine and could hardly stand for the burning. Oh boy, I thought. I was one of the old men in the battery, twenty-six years old, a section chief, overly serious about everything, and thinking back probably a little pompous. I dreaded what I had to do next.

I went to Top’s hooch and told him I needed to get to the hospital. “I don’t know how this hap­pened, Top. Honest to God I never put my toe in the water.”

He looked at me, “It’s not your toe we’re talking about,” and held out a handful of the little square packets.

I went to the regimental hospital in Phan Rang. The medics took a culture, which in itself was a minor adventure, gave me a bag of pills, and told me to come back in two days. When I returned the technician gave me a thin smile, “You got a whole zoo growing in there.” He said it was nonspecific ure­thritis from highly unsanitary conditions. I thought: VD without the fun. Vietnam always had new ways to screw you.


I never tried to tell the First Sergeant about how I really got the clap. It would have felt like trying to explain how a virgin gets pregnant. But I made sure it never happened again. I started washing my hands before going to the latrine.

Ed Gaydos – Fire Direction Control – Part One


These stories come from my two books on Vietnam: Seven in a Jeep: A Memoir of the Vietnam War and its sequel Surplus: The Long Arm of Vietnam.

Seven in a Jeep Coversurplus-copy-2

How to pick the few incidents to include here? Reading through Seven in a Jeep three years after publication I was struck by how many times First Sergeant Stollberg comes on the scene. Top and I arrived at LZ Sherry at about the same time and left within a few weeks of each other, spanning ten months together on that little patch of sand.

Most of my contribution to this history of B Battery will be stories about Top, and in this way I will tell some of my story too. Top and I didn’t get along all that well. He was Old Army to the core, a veteran of three wars; while I was a kid with a thin skin a couple years out of the Catholic seminary, and recently pulled out of graduate school. Eventually we came to a distant respect for one another, and by the time we were ready to leave LZ Sherry I came to appreciate the man behind the bluster.

I wrote home most often to my mom, to my future wife Kathleen, and to my two younger sisters Jayne and Mary Kay. God bless them these beautiful women saved every letter. These stories sometimes include quotes from those letters, in-the-moment comments from my younger self. The dialog in these stories isn’t word-for-word perfect, but comes close, because some conversations you never forget.


First Sergeant Stollberg Picture courtesy Joe DeFrancisco
First Sergeant Stollberg
Picture courtesy Joe DeFrancisco

Make no mistake, First Sergeant Stollberg ran LZ Sherry. The officers played their parts, but the first sergeant pulled the strings. He had spent his adult life engaged in warfare: WWII, Korea and now a second tour in Vietnam. Top was old school artillery, and half deaf because earplugs were for pussies. He knew more about artillery than the rest of the battery combined, and had seen battles we only read about in school. Top’s combat career showed in his face. Up close it looked like tire tread. And he did not take guff from anybody.

Every morning Top called a formation. He held it at dif­ferent locations around the battery, to keep the VC guessing. Placing soldiers in the same spot at the same time every day was asking for trouble. Top’s formations were quick and all business. He was keen on haircuts, upcoming inspections, work details, and the sorry state of the sad sacks under his command. Sometimes he pulled out a sheet of paper with a new policy from the Pentagon or battalion headquarters and read it word-for-word, not hiding his contempt for directives that had little to do with fighting the war.

Then there was keeping track of his boys, mostly teenagers, confined to a one-acre firebase like caged monkeys with guns. At the daily formation Top went down the rows for a report from each section chief. When he heard “All present” he looked up the rank and they had better be there.

Sometimes a section chief added, “…or accounted for.” Top would turn a red face in his direction, “So where the fuck are they? What are they doing that is so God-awful more important than my formation?”

Worst of all was, “One absent, First Ser­geant.” This was shorthand for, I am missing a man and I have no idea where he is. Top’s eyes would turn to blue marbles, “You go find him right now.”

The more I got to know Top the less I liked him. He had a temper, charming one minute and shouting the next. I never knew what would set him off. From halfway across the battery I could tell what kind of a mood he was in by the shade of his face.

FO Fever

I wrote my first letter home under a flashlight three days after getting to Sherry.

May 5, 1970

I know you are all anxious to hear about LZ Sherry, the firing battery that will be my home for the next few months. Well, the food is good; much better than anything the Army ever served up in the states. But most of all I suppose you want to know how safe it is here. I’m not going to tell you it’s like being in my mother’s arms. It isn’t. We take sniper fire and of course mortar rounds every so often, just like every other firebase in Vietnam. And there is always the danger of the gooks getting thru our perimeter.

I work an “8 on – 8 off” shift around the clock, which means I spend most of my time working or sleeping. I’m still very skittery, especially at night when the VC does all its work. During our first mortar attack I just about wet my pants.

That was the night LZ Betty to our south was overrun and LZ Sherry was hit with two separate mortar attacks. The action at Sherry stopped a little after 3:00 a.m. We had no ca­sualties that night, but LZ Betty was not so fortunate. In the morning we learned that she had taken heavy casualties, and that our forward observers there were badly hurt. An NVA infantry battalion of five companies in consort with five companies of VC, a force of about 350, had attacked LZ Betty. They killed seven U.S. soldiers and wounded thirty-five, leav­ing behind fourteen bodies of their own they could not carry off. That night 130 attacks occurred against firebases and in­stallations in the region. LZ Betty was the only one to suffer a ground attack.

A forward observer team from LZ Sherry attached to 1st of the 50th Mechanized Infantry, Sergeant Pierce and radio operator Bill Wright, were at Betty when the attack occurred. Pierce took a round in the upper leg that made him fall over backwards onto Wright. The two sat back-to-back firing their weapons when Wright took two rounds, one in the back and the other in the upper leg. The last thing Wright remembers is being pulled out by a squad of the 1st/50th. When Wright woke up he was in Phan Rang and Pierce was in the next bed. (Taken from Bill Wright’s account of that night posted on the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infan­try website:

We shot fire missions for the 1st/50th and they often bivouacked at Sherry for a day or two. I hung out with the forward observers because I loved the FO training at Ft. Sill and liked listening to stories from the field.

After only a few weeks at Sherry l had lost my jitters, grown bored and had forgotten that the FO team from Sherry had just been chewed up at LZ Betty. I wanted action and in a letter home I laid out my plan.

June 2, 1970

This FDC job is sure boring. I am thinking seriously of becoming a forward observer. Sitting between four walls for 12 hours a day and getting very little exercise is getting to me. I’d rather be out and about. We’ve got a FO here now from the field. Think I’ll talk to him in the morning. We have endless inspections, formations and “busy” projects. I’d rather have the war – seriously.

The drop in action did not last long. Fighting intensified with the beginning of monsoon season. Thick cloud cover and heavy rains reduced visibility at night to near zero and curtailed air operations, making monsoon a good time of year for the NVA and VC. They could pretty much waltz around at will. Despite a sharp increase in fighting, I still lusted for action.

July 2, 1970

Enemy activity has significantly increased with the beginning of July. This is their busy season you know. A couple VC battalions have been roaming around the area. We fired on one of them just 1000 meters off our perimeter last Sunday morning. Gunships also worked over the area. That went on all morning. Sunday morning is a favorite time with the VC. The Sunday before last I started my breakfast three times. I’d get two bites down when the siren would go off for another fire mission.

Many of the fire missions that come over our radios sound like clips from a television serial. Infantrymen taking AK-47 fire and mortars, or a chopper pilot adjusting artillery fire. Often it’s hard to believe that it’s all for real. You know I don’t even have normal dreams anymore. All I dream about are machine guns and sandbags and helicopters. 

Last week we were alerted for a heli-borne operation. We were told we would be going to Bu Prang, which is on the tip of the Parrot’s Beak on the Cambodian border. But they have decided to send two guns from A Battery. I was looking forward to it; this place is so bloody boring.

Bored and stupidly dreaming of action
Bored and stupidly dreaming of action

I applied for FO school in early August, three months after arriving in Vietnam. Every forward observer, even graduates of Ft. Sill gunnery school, needed more training in Vietnam. After my first few minutes inside FDC and after listening to the FOs on the radio call in artillery with strange protocols and even stranger terminology, I understood why. This was not something you should learn on the job. I was approved to attend FO school in October and replace a guy leaving the next month. My heart beat a little faster at the thought of getting into the action.

Just before my departure Top pulled me aside. “The captain cancelled your FO school. He thinks you’re too valuable because you have formal FDC training. And there’d be a shortage if you left.”

I was crushed, thinking only of the endless tedium before me in this little firebase. “Top, what if I talked to him?”

“Won’t do any good. He made up his mind. That’s it.”


He was a child committing an act of war. We nabbed him in our concertina wire putting rubber bands around the trip flares. The VC and NVA often sent children to disable the flares before a ground attack. This made it easier for sappers to pen­etrate and blow holes in the wire, leading the way for NVA and VC regulars to come pouring through. We were already on edge from a special alert that had come down a few days before, and we were taking more than the usual amount of mortar fire. Days earlier a crew servicing the trip flares in the outer wire had dis­covered an anti-personnel mine. It was a homemade device: explosive material and four batteries in a plastic bag, with two bamboo sticks and wires for a detonator. It did not matter to a lot of guys that the enemy disabling our flares was a kid.

The soldier who caught the boy hauled him into the com­pound at rifle point. He looked to be around eight years old, just a whisper of a boy. His shoulder joints stuck up from his body in two knobs. He was dressed in a pair of shorts and Ho Chi Minh sandals, made with tire treads and strips of inner tube. He was crying. A crowd gathered and soon a heated discussion boiled up.

“He’s just a little kid, let him go.”

“Bullshit, these kids are soldiers. He’s a fuckin’ prisoner as far as I’m concerned.”

“He’s faking those tears, they train ‘em to do that, and I’ll bet he’s a lot older than he looks.”

“They don’t train these kids. They threaten their families or they pay them to do this shit.”

“He did this in broad daylight, right in front of us. He’s too stupid to be a soldier.”

“He’s a soldier if he’s working for the gooks.”

Voices rose to shouting. The boy knew no English, and we could manage only a few words of Vietnamese, none of them useful. We must have seemed like white giants to him, some with yellow hair that many Vietnamese had never seen and loved to touch when given the chance. The prisoner stood surrounded by these strangely colored behemoths as they bel­lowed at each other in their flat, guttural language.

In came Top; he was never far away. He listened without saying a word. With no explanation Top pulled his .45 and said, “I’m gonna shoot the little fucker right here and now.” He leveled the pistol at the boy’s chest.

The crowd fell silent. The boy stopped crying. There was a moment of stillness when the unthinkable was about to occur.

“NO,” we shouted together. One soldier stepped between Top and the boy. Then all was chaos and shouting again.

Top put away his pistol, and turning to leave said, “OK, girls, but get that little shit out of my battery.”

The boy stared with wide, unseeing eyes. His entire body began to shake. The soldiers who wanted him in a POW camp now petted his shoulder, rubbed his arms, crouched to look into his eyes saying soothing words to him. The kid started to cry again. Someone brought out a Hershey bar, maybe the great­est weapon of goodwill ever deployed by the U.S. military. The boy stopped crying and looked around. He took the candy bar and gave a smile that would melt the paint off a howitzer. That was all the encouragement we needed. Guys scurried off in search of more stuff. They piled the boy high with cartons of cigarettes, candy, C rations and a magazine or two. He stag­gered out the main gate hardly able to carry it all, but carrying a message from Top that needed no translation.