Monthly Archives: December 2016

Jim Kustes – Gen Crew – Part Three

Steve Sherlock

Steve Sherlock and Percy Gulley, both twenty years old, died almost instantly on a mine sweep April 2, 1969. Jim remembers that Sherlock’s father sent a letter to B Battery that  was read to everyone at formation.

Steve Sherlock was in my section. At first I complained about him to Calvin Smith our gun chief. I’m doing all the work and he’s sitting on his ass not doing anything. Smitty said, “Let him be. He may not do anything for a couple days, and then he’ll get up and spend the whole day reorganizing, go through the whole area organizing the ammo.” So I never said anything. I won’t use the word lazy, but he was very laid back.

Sherlock was from Kingston NY and his parents would send him these CARE packages all the time. His hooch was filled with canned goods and he used to light pieces of C4 to heat his pork and beans or whatever. I remember he’d tell me when you light the C4 to never stamp on it or it would blow your foot off. I later learned from Myth Busters that wasn’t true at all, but I believed it at the time.

Sherlock with a can good at his feet Picture by Dave Fitchpatrick
Sherlock with a can at his feet
Picture by Dave Fitchpatrick

I only knew Sherlock three or four weeks, but he became a very good friend and I remember him better than anyone else. He did a thing that I hated. He would unscrew a grenade, take out the blasting cap, and put it back together. Then he’d pull the pin and throw the grenade at you. I used to tell him, “Stop that! One of these days you are going to grab the wrong one.”

What seems funny is that I felt like I knew him for a long time, and it turns out to be just for a couple weeks until he was killed. We were building an enlisted club where we could drink beer, and that day they needed a detail to either work on the beer club or go out on a mine sweep. It was my turn to go out on the mine sweep, but Sherlock said to me, “No, I been in country longer. You go on the detail and I’ll go on the mine sweep.” He thought going out on a mine sweep was the easier job. I remember being up on the roof of the new club while people were handing me sandbags and I heard the explosion. I looked up and saw this smoke on the road.

Mine explosion Picture by Dave Fitchpatrick
A mine explosion on the road east as seen from Sherry
Picture by Dave Fitchpatrick

Tom Townley: Medic

When the road crew got hit sweeping the road, they were probably about a mile out from LZ Sherry, maybe a little more. I was burning shit at the time, when I heard an explosion and looked up and could see the smoke over the tree line. And I knew something had happened but I didn’t know what. And then all of a sudden I saw a Jeep come flying up the track towards the firebase screaming and yelling, “Doc, Doc, get over here.”

Well I ran and grabbed my bag. And jumped on the jeep and they took me out there. I got out of the jeep and was walking along the side of the road. The 1st sergeant Farrell said, “Doc! Stop! Watch where you’re walking.”

And I stopped.

He said, “You can’t walk over there. Walk on the hardpan.”

I came close to stepping on one of those bombs that when you step on it all the little bombs pop up in the air. I almost stepped on it. The Viet Cong picked up artillery rounds and bombs that never exploded and buried them as mines. There was enough explosives in this one it would have blown my leg off.

Sherlock was already dead. He was gone. There was nothing we could do for him. But I had to take care of Gulley. He was blown away from here down (places his hand at his rib cage).

There was nothing there. Nothing. It was gone. His one arm was gone. And he was still alive. Well I wrapped his arm for him, because he saw it. Told him he was going to be all right, that was all I could tell him, you know. I still have dreams about that. But there was nothing I could do, absolutely nothing I could do. There was nothing there to do anything with. You know what I mean? But he hung in there for a good twenty minutes. It took that much time (He is silent for a long moment). The way …. the way … he was blown, it must have constricted the blood flow, enough to keep him alive. He had enough blood in him to keep him alive apparently.

They were not the only ones I saw when I was there. I saw a couple of Vietnamese that they brought in and wanted me to fix up. They were already dead.

Paul Dunne

My almost being on that convoy instead of Sherlock was like when Dunne and I switched places on the jeep.

Jim was sitting on the hood of the jeep when it hit a road mine and killed Paul Dunne. The memories of Dick Graham and First Sergeant Durant are a good introduction to Jim’s story.

Dick Graham

We had to mine sweep the access road that ran from the battery out to the paved road that went into Phan Thiet. It took quite a while. The road was about two and a half miles long and there was a lot of shrapnel in the road, mostly from fire missions that we had shot. When we got to the end of the road, to the bridge where Paul was killed, the medal detectors were of no use because the bridge was made out of reinforced concrete. We would visually inspect it. Then shortly after that bridge was the paved road going south into Phan Thiet, which we called 8-Bravo. You got on that and you just whipped right into Phan Thiet.

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

First Sergeant Durant

We were due to run a convoy, and I was running it. Paul had the jeep all fixed up and ready to go: radios, weapons and everything. Commo section came over and said, “Hey look, can we run the convoy? Guys want to go in and get this and do that. Rather than you run it, let us run the convoy.”

I said, “OK. I guess you can go ahead and run it.” So I told Paul, “Go take all that shit back off the jeep because Commo’s running the convoy.”

He said, “Look, First Sergeant, I’m all loaded up, I’ve got everything set. Why don’t I just run with them today.” 

I said, “Well, if you want to.”

I’ll tell you about Paul Dunne. We’d sit in my hooch talking about buying a car through the PX and having it sent home. I was looking at a Jaguar and he wanted an MGB. When I got home I looked at a Jaguar, but it was raining at the time and the roof leaked, so I didn’t get a Jag. I also looked at an MGB, but didn’t get that either.

Paul never had any money. He used to send everything home. We paid two or three bucks a week for soda and that kind of thing, but he never did. He sent every nickel home. Instead of sending his laundry to town like everybody else, he washed his clothes by hand and they were always so wrinkled.


Paul Dunne on laundry day Picture by Rik Groves
Paul Dunne on laundry day
Picture by Rik Groves

I didn’t know I was supposed to go on a mine sweep for a convoy. I had just gotten off duty, I was sound asleep when Dunne pulled up to my hooch. Dunne was calling me to come on, come on. My section chief said it was my turn to go, and I told him I just got off guard duty, but he said I had to go. I was really mad. I told Paul: I’ll go, but you’re taking me down to the mess hall for some coffee and sandwiches. After I got my coffee and sandwich I said, “I’ll take the rear and sit looking backwards.” Which I did all the way down the road. The road was full of people walking on each side. A lot of them were ARVNs going to get resupplied.

We came to near the end of the dirt access road where it met the highway going south into Phan Thiet, which we knew was clear. I was going to take the jeep back to Sherry. So I jumped off the back of the jeep and walked around to take Paul’s place behind the wheel. We had a new sergeant who was doing the mine sweeping and he said first we had to go all the way to the end of the dirt road to look for this dog we had with us I think belonged to the First Sergeant. I was in the drivers seat and Paul said, “I’ll take the jeep up for the dog,” so I jumped out of the drivers seat and went back to jump on the back again. But by this time the six or so guys who were walking flank had come back and were on the jeep to ride to the end of the dirt road. So I jumped on the hood of the jeep over the front left wheel, in front of Paul. I had my hand down holding onto the wheel well and turning around talking to Paul. The wheels had just barely started to turn when we hit the mine. The wheels didn’t even go six inches.

The mine went off at the front left tire under where I was sitting and holding my hand, and right in front of Paul. I went flying off to the left down into the ditch that ran under a culvert. There might have been water down there, I don’t remember. I looked back up at the jeep, and it had spun a complete 180 and was still bouncing. I was trying to get my watch off because my hand was injured. I was also looking for my weapon because I didn’t know what was going on.

Your body automatically goes into shock and I didn’t know how bad I was. I remember laying there and the medic coming and giving me morphine. I said to him I was worried about getting too much morphine. So he marked a big M on my forehead and stuck the empty syringe through my lapel. The Medevac then took us out, probably to the aid station at LZ Betty at Phan Thiet. I remember Paul laying next to me, so close I could have reached over and touched him. From the waist up he looked normal. A doctor was working on his bottom. He was very pale and his eyes were closed. I think he was already dead. I have a memory of them pulling a sheet over his head. I don’t know if that is a true memory. Under all that medication you don’t know. What I think is true might not be.

I always thought Paul died from an injury to his legs. But the First Sergeant later told me he was hit on the right side of his neck that I could not see laying there. At the aid station in Phan Thiet I remember the new sergeant on the convoy coming to visit me. I think he was in the passenger seat next to Paul, and I think he was wounded but not bad. That jeep was loaded with people, but as far as I know Paul and I were the only ones hurt badly.

Mine explosion under front left tire
Mine explosion under front left tire
View from driver’s seat - note hole in floorboard Pictures by Andy Kach
View from driver’s seat – note hole in floorboard
Pictures by Andy Kach

From Phan Thiet I went to a hospital in Phan Rang for a couple of weeks. A woman came up to me with a stenographer’s notebook and said I was to dictate a letter home. I said to her, “It looks like I’ve got two broken legs and a broken arm,” because they were in casts and that’s all I could see. I never saw the actual wounds. And that’s what I wrote home: I’m alive and OK, but with two broken legs and a broken arm.

Then to Saigon overnight to get more blood, before they could fly me to Japan. I had surgery in Japan. And then I flew to Ft. Lewis for a brief period, and then to a big Army hospital in Phoenixville outside Philadelphia. I was there for six months. I ended up having so many surgeries I can’t remember all of them.

After six months at Phoenixville I was already thirty days over my two year enlistment. They asked me if I wanted to get out or stay in the Army till the end of my treatment. If I got out I would be on total military disability and on Social Security disability, together coming to around seven hundred a month. At the time I was making less than two hundred dollars on active duty. So I took an immediate disability retirement and spent another three months at the VA hospital in Buffalo. I wanted to start college in August, but they did not want to discharge me at first. Finally they said OK, but I had to go back everyday to have my bandages checked. I don’t know how long that lasted, probably till I stopped going.

I got a letter from an old buddy at Sherry, George Stevens. Back in July of 1969 when I had been at Sherry for about four months, a mortar hit one of the gun hooches. I ran over and when I reached the gun several guys were hit. Behind the gun lay George Stevens. He had a large gash on his right arm. I began putting direct pressure on the wound. I could actually feel blood squirt into my palm. After the medic came I began looking through his pockets for money. I wanted to make sure he had some cash in the rear after he recovered, because when guys got wounded their stuff had a way of getting lost. When George returned to Sherry he always teased me that I was trying to steal his money. After I was injured he wrote to me in his letter that he never got the opportunity to go through my pockets.

I still had open wounds in my leg all the way into the 90s, over twenty years later. They would drain, I’d have to wrap them, they’d heal up for a little while, then open up and start to drain again. I finally went to a private plastic surgeon and had them closed up and haven’t had a problem since. I do have to be careful with my right foot keeping cream on it all the time so it doesn’t open up. It’s been OK for a couple years now.

Jim Kustes – Gun Crew – Part Two

Kustes center loading a round
Kustes center loading a round on Gun 5

Living Large

I spent thirty years not giving Vietnam a thought. So there are big gaps in my memory. Early on a very close friend, Steve Sherlock, died on a mine sweep. Eight months later at the end of my tour I’m wounded bad when the jeep I am sitting on hits a mine and Paul Dunne is killed. I remember both of those, but not a whole lot in between

I do remember it was not all doom and gloom at Sherry. I had a good time there, one of the best times I ever had. I don’t remember a lot of details, but I remember the big urn of coffee the cooks put out at night outside FDC. That’s where I learned how to drink black coffee without cream. The little cartons of milk were a lot of times soured and you’d hunt for one that was good. In the mess hall I liked to watch the officers who flew in for a day go into the officer’s section with a carton of milk. They’d take a big swig of that milk and spew it out. I’d get a kick out of watching them.

I was friends with the guy who worked in the mess hall, Mike Bessler from Doylestown PA, and I would go down to the chopper pad when they brought the ice in and help unload. I always dropped one and got to keep a chunk. In my hooch I had a cooler and I always had ice cold beer. My hooch mate, Leroy Leggett, had a reel-to-reel tape recorder. We ran a secret wire from the battery generator into my hooch, so we could play music. And we had lights strung up in there. I could get ten people into my hooch with the music and lights and cold beer. The guy in the mess hall would give me ham, and we’d have ham sandwiches too. One day the First Sergeant, it had to be Durant, walked in because he heard the music and the partying. He just stood at the door and said, “Jeez, you guys got it better than I got it.” He just shook his head and turned away and walked out.

Party time in Jim’s hooch - Leggett with pipe, Jim with beer
Party time in Jim’s hooch – Leggett with pipe, Jim with beer

I made sure I had as many amenities as possible. Our showers were made out of ammo boxes with a 55 gallon drum on top and a ladder going up to fill it. The officer’s shower had a portable water heater in the barrel, and I thought if they had hot water why not us? So I worked on my shower to make sure we had hot water. I can’t remember exactly how I did it. I may have gotten a water heater and heated the water on the ground and then carried it up. Or I may have put the heater in the barrel on top of the shower. I don’t remember. I do know we had hot shower water on my gun.

The M67 Immersion Water Heater ran on diesel, and heated water to clean mess kits, trays, utensils and canteens. The officers shower had one installed in the water barrel perched on top of its rickety frame. The enterprising Kustes somehow secured an M67, no doubt through his special relationship with Mike Bessler.

Cindy, civilian mess hall worker, with M67 water heaters
Cindy, mess hall worker, with M67 water heaters
Two Showers Original picture by Dave Fitchpatrick
Two Showers
Original picture by Dave Fitchpatrick

Ants, Scorpions and Snakes

We were being mortared so much in July and August of 1969, every day, that it didn’t bother me anymore. We couldn’t get anyone to patrol the mortar sites for us, so Lt. Parker got all the guys to go out and look for ourselves. There were probably twenty or thirty of us. Parker told us when we hit this mound out in the rice paddies for everyone to open up on the tree line with suppressive fire in case anyone was out there. When we get there we all hit the ground and open up. I had this piece of crap M16 that jammed on me. I am laying on the ground trying to clear my rifle. I am laying on the ground trying to clear my rifle. Red ants start biting the hell out of me, and I realize I am laying on top of their nest. I jump up brushing them off, and I look around and everyone is laying on the ground shooting and here I am standing up jumping around in the middle of it all. I was lucky we were not getting any return fire.

After that day, I thought if I ever have to go anywhere I am taking an M14. One of the medics had an M14 and I borrowed it from him whenever I had to go anywhere. I never used my M16 again. Guys would carry the cleaning rod on the butt of the M16 to poke out the spent shell when it jammed and wouldn’t eject. You had to keep the M16 really clean, but the oil you had to use on it, because things were so sandy, made it worse.


I remember when I first got in country, people had these scorpions and they’d take a pencil to make them strike it. One day I was taking a sandbag out of the gun parapet and reached in and got stung in the finger by a scorpion. It kind of scared me because being naïve you hear all these stories about you better get aid right away. I went to the medic and he said, “Yeah, you’ll be alright.”


We also had a cobra in our parapet. It would rear up with its hood. I had a bad fear of snakes at the time. But one of the guys shot it. Later I was working out on the perimeter and this black thing sprung up on me. I almost crapped my pants I thought it was a cobra. It turned out to be a piece of black metal banding that popped up when I stepped on it.