Steve Bell – Gun Crew – Part One

Snoopy’s Luck

I was nineteen in 1969 when a buddy and I sat in my VW listening to the dates for the draft lotto. I was young, had a good job and honestly did not want to go to the Army. So as we waited for our birthdates to come up we drank a few beers, both hoping our youthful good luck would give us each a high number, lessening our chances of being drafted.

As luck turned out my number ended up being thirteen, and my buddy’s three hundred and something. My friend never did go, but my story was different. I am color blind, have a heart murmur, and a knee that likes to pop out of joint. Still I passed the Army physical with no problem. The Army doctor did not hear a thing when he listened to my chest. Yet when I got out of the Army and applied for a DOT job, the old doctor had me step up and down a few times on a low stepping stool and said right away, “Yep, you’ve got a murmur.” Six months after my Army physical I found myself in Ft. Lewis, Washington getting a butch haircut, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

June 1970 I found myself hurrying down a sand road on LZ Betty to find my chopper out to Sherry. As I carried my duffle bag over my shoulder and worked to keep my footing, I noticed something shiny sticking out of the sand just off the road. I picked it up and found that it was a nice Zippo lighter. It was engraved on both sides. One side was Snoopy standing on top of his doghouse riddled with bullet holes. He is wearing aviator goggles and his aviator cap with his fist in the air. Underneath Snoopy it read: Fuck you Red Barron. On the other side was Psalm 23.4: Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and so forth. It was a nice lighter and I did smoke and needed one.

Lighter similar to Steve’s
Lighter similar to Steve’s

As I neared the chopper I remembered what the guys who gave me my orders told me to do, with me being a cherry and all. They told me to hang on and don’t fall out the chopper door as the door would be wide open. When I got at Sherry the chopper would not land due to the danger of enemy fire. They said it would hover about six feet off the ground and I had to jump and run. I thought: Oh God, was this lighter an omen? Was I scared.

I reached my chopper ride and hopped in. It was a short ride and I took snapshots of the area, noting all the rice paddies and the lack of trees. After a short flight we approached Sherry and circled the base, and for the first time I saw what a real firebase looked like. I saw a lot of sandbag bunkers, two tanks (the Dusters), many rows of concertina wire surrounding the whole base and all six guns in their parapets. The guns were not the same I was trained on at Ft. Sill, but something new I had never seen before. They turned out to be the new M-102s with longer range, much easier to air lift and set up.

As we circled I was thinking of the directions they told me back at LZ Betty about jumping from the chopper. So as we came in I was a lot nervous and readied myself for anything. After all, I was a cherry big time. The chopper didn’t hover but gently sat down on the pad, much to my relief. As I got my bag off I kind of laughed at those guys at Betty. I bet they told all the cherries to jump and had a good laugh also.

So My life at LZ Sherry for nearly fourteen months began. I kept that lighter the entire time I was at LZ Sherry, but lost it the very day we pulled up our guns to leave the base. So I think it served me well and was a good luck charm. I went home safe. Silly things stick in you head when you’re a kid.

First Action

My first week at LZ Sherry I am put on Gun 5, named Barbarella and the battery base piece. (Base piece fired the first adjusting rounds of a fire mission, followed by the other guns.) Everyone on Gun 5 was very friendly and helpful when I first got there. Some guys had been there for awhile and knew the ropes. For the first few days I just got to learn the layout of the base and was introduced to the new M-102 howitzer that I had never seen before.

Bell and Barbarella
Bell and Barbarella

I ended up sharing a hooch with two other guys, and that helped a lot. I was the third man in the hooch. Usually only two men were put in a hooch but they already had a full crew and I was  extra. My hooch partners were Clay and a guy from Wisconsin, his name was Hansen. I did have a cot, though and the only space was just inside the door. Most hooches were very small with two sections to them, the entrance and the sleeping area separated by a blast wall. The wall was there just in case of sappers. I slept in the blast wall entrance area.

On the fourth night, a very black night, Hansen and Clay and I were playing some cards in the hooch and we heard some distant thumps. I didn’t think anything of them, as at night guns went off all night long. Hansen and Clay jumped up yelling INCOMING and next the siren was blasting. My hooch partners grabbed helmets and flack jackets, yelled at me to stay put and not go outside, to wait until the mortars hit. They were out of the hooch in a split second.

I just sat there stunned for about three seconds after they left and thought: Shit, this is the real deal. Also I remember thinking: I got to go, this is what I am here for, my new friends are out there, and I should be with them. This all took place in just a few seconds. I hit the door and was exposed. I was shaking and scared, but thinking also of my duty. It was a straight shot to the Gun 5 parapet, about eighty feet across the road. I got about ten feet out the door and noticed it was no longer pitch black. Illumination rounds were lit overhead, and men, guns and hooches all swung to and fro caused by the illumination parachutes swinging above. The smoke from the howitzers was so heavy it was like fog, and I will never forget that smell. As I got closer to my gun I could see the parapet lit up. The scene was like having tunnel vision, shadows and light swinging, but also strobing from gun flashes.

When I reached the gun everyone was doing their thing. I couldn’t believe the gun could fire that fast, but the boys were pumping her. They needed ammo fast so I tried to get my shit together and do what I was trained to do. I did do it, and today am proud of my actions during my first enemy action. I don’t think I slept the rest of that night. I had to pull guard but was too worked up to sleep anyway. This was the first of many mortar, rocket and small arms attacks I experienced on LZ Sherry, but this time everyone came though safe.