|The Battle at Burkett, Choices Made|
|I got off to a rough start upon my arrival at
Support Base Burkett. Having been up working hard on the pull
Ft. Defiance in April 1970, I was
without sleep for over thirty hours and found the top of our 577 track the
safest place to sack out. Other soldiers continued their labor thru the night
filling sandbags and working hard. I didn’t want to be an obstacle to be tripped
on in the dark because it was midnight, so I climbed on top of the 577.
About 0300 hrs, somebody woke me and said the XO was looking for me. I got up and reported to him. I was chewed out for hiding from him even after he told me to get some rest at midnight. They had spent an hour looking for me to relieve the other Lieutenant so he could also get some rest. I reminded him that we were all exhausted, and it was very difficult to hide while asleep and I was literally right above his head atop the 577. The other Lt. didn’t speak to me because he was so pissed.1 I took over because they both obviously needed rest. Work continued but at a much slower pace since everybody needed rest.
We figured that the change in location would mess up the operation plans that the North Vietnam Army (NVA) had against us but wouldn’t stop their goal of ridding us from the area. We had at least three days to a week before the perimeter tests would begin. The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment used its mobility to keep the enemy off balance. From a strategic standpoint, constant movement keeps a larger enemy force from focusing on a particular spot to do battle. This neutralizes their numerical advantage, and coupled with the firepower available to the modern cavalry unit, has changed warfare at least temporarily.
Rumors of an impending assault into Cambodia started almost immediately after we set up base here. I was excited at the prospect of being part of it. This also meant that we could not run from this spot. We had to take their best shot and prevail or the Cambodian thing was questionable, so it seemed to this dumb little 2nd Lt. We in FDC (Fire Direction Center) discussed this kind of stuff on occasion, debating pros and cons, but we all were frustrated with the present conditions along the border with its restrictions. FSB Burkett was about to change this, and all of us knew it. We also were becoming more a part of the 11th ACR ourselves, finding some kinship with these fine troopers. Our efforts were being recognized, morale was deteriorating due to the hard work, the mail, beer, and everything else delivered was sporadic at best. Some of the visiting higher up officers would have been more warmly received if they had brought a block of ice or two. The 11th ACR guys shared what they could to help, but their supplies were tight also.
My own situation had changed a bit. The new Battery Commander was questioning my competence and our relationship was strained. I was fortunate that he usually kept with the 175’s who were still stationed at Quan Loi, about twelve or so miles to the east. We had shot a target list fire mission with the wrong list, using the new ICM round; (Improved Conventional Munitions was the bomblet round with 100 little bouncing Betty bomblets inside).2 One round landed near a troop in the jungle that we didn’t know were there. There were also changes made in assigning and labeling target lists.
Afterwards, the 11th ACR was much more diligent about telling us where everyone was. When the affected troops came to spend a few days at Burkett, I went to them to apologize and explain so their confidence in us wasn’t broken. I was also very curious about the performance of the bomblets in the jungle. The guys I talked to were experienced combat veterans. They told me that it was the scariest thing they’d been through, 100 meters closer, and they’d been wiped out. I was impressed. The problem with the ICM round is the percentage of misfires requires the impact area being designated a minefield. This requires horrendous paperwork and eventual clearing by trained minesweepers to protect the civilian population. Firing an ICM round unobserved was almost unheard of for these reasons, but that was the order we were given.
The firebase itself was about 200-300 meters in diameter, roughly circular. Our two 8in. howitzers were joined with the 2nd. Squadron’s 155 SP Battery (six howitzers). There was also a 4.2 in. Mortar platoon or it might have been 81mm mortars that also had a small area. I think I remember the mortars being mounted inside special APC type tracks, which afforded some protection during the occasional artillery duel we would engage in. The 155’s had a bit more armor protection because they weren’t open at the top. Of course the eight-inch howitzers were open to everything, and even worse, were steel platforms that bullets and shrapnel liked to ricochet from with lethal energy preserved.
Our standard operating procedure was to bunker in everything we could, as deep as possible. Once two sandbag-deep protection was complete, we would start with a third layer of bags. Cyclone type fencing was installed around the gun emplacements to catch RPG’s and rockets. We usually remained in an area for awhile due to the weapons’ range. The 11th ACR didn’t do the same stuff, they were used to moving, and had their own armor so they didn’t dig in nearly as much as we did, except on the perimeter.
I never saw the tanks line up on the top of a hill like in the movies. Our guys in tanks on the perimeter would fight from reasonably dug in fighting positions, spaced 40-50 meters apart, open on the back for quick exit if necessary, or supply of ammunition. The gun turret along with the 50 cal. machine gun was the only thing sticking above the six to eight foot berm making up our outer protective ring. Between each tank on the perimeter was a bunker in which one or two soldiers sat with an M-60 machine gun. They also manned the clickers used to pop the claymore mines hidden in the rolled barbed and razor wire. There were trip flares hidden in the wire. Outside the wire, herbicides were used to remove vegetation cover, and an occasional tree was repositioned with detonation cord or as target practice. Fields of fire were cleared as much as possible in preparation for our guests. Much of this work was done by the attached Combat Engineer group, using their bulldozers and other heavy equipment. In short, this was a large construction site, centered on destruction.
Our Fire Direction Center was well dug in, about eight foot deep, with sandbags and ammo casings filled with dirt stacked on top and along the sides. We were reasonably secure except that our many antennas made us a nice aiming point. This was exasperated by the 155 FDC setting up shop right next door, but they weren’t dug in nearly as well. They had a ring of sandbags around a tent and their own 577 track. The only other grouping of antennas was on the Squadron Tactical Operations Center. From outside the perimeter, it was obvious that artillery was centered here and armor was Hq’d there. Our two 8 in. gun sections were closer to the perimeter in our little quadrant of the base, and each gun section had their own bunker that was well protected. All ammunition for each gun also had been bunkered for enemy fire protection and consistent temperature to help in accuracy.
Our guests, the NVA, (now known as “Ginks” due to “Gooks” being politically incorrect) pretty much arrived on schedule and started with the harassment and intelligence gathering pot shots less than a week after we arrived. This would continue almost nightly for a short period of time. We knew that they would make mock-ups of a targeted base to practice a plan of attack and that kind of planning takes time. We also knew that the basis of all their attacks was to get in close to our perimeter and take advantage of any small gap in order to wreck havoc on the interior, where our defenses were less staged. They had highly trained sapper squads that performed this dangerous task, and carried satchels of explosives along with grenades to throw into any bunker opening. Intelligence reports continued to believe that a reinforced NVA regiment was facing us, the additional attachments consisting of more Gink artillery and sappers than what usually constituted a regiment. We were still outnumbered four or five to one, maybe more. Weather conditions also resulted in a very hot, dry and dusty environment.
On the night of 20 April 1970, we were ensconced in the FDC with the usual complement, and I apologize that I don’t remember everybody’s name, but as follows: Bill Biggs and Jim Cannon. Additionally we had a visiting officer, 2Lt George Montgomery,3 the Battalion Aerial Observer observing our operation. He probably could have found a better night to learn normal operating procedures. We knew by 2200 or 2300 hours that something big was up. All the mascot dogs on base were barking fiercely at the perimeter. There was also a very strong scent of marijuana in the air. So strong, you could almost get high just sitting outside. This meant that some GI had discovered a real good stash or that there were many high Ginks getting ready for action. They used the drug to reduce pain if wounded and it helped steel their courage. It may have had additives included to enhance these effects. They made no effort to conceal this by smoking downwind from us. Anyhow, it was obviously Prom night. The opening round was fired from a 60mm mortar, and was the finest bit of artillery marksmanship that I witnessed throughout the war. They landed that sucker right on the 155 Battery FDC, wounding all present and destroying their equipment and commo to the guns.
There was a slight lull enabling our medic and the 155 medics to assist the wounded. Then everything lit up, things got noisy as the tanks returned fire at the muzzle flashes they observed in the dark. We were pounded with 60, and 81mm mortars, 107mm rockets, and RPG’s. We thought this was everything in their arsenal, along with steady machine gun and AK-47 fire. It was interesting to see the green tracers zipping in while our red tracers streamed out.
Bill Biggs was in constant contact with the Squadron TOC, and then reported to me that there were Ginks in the wire on the other side of the compound. Somebody popped a claymore and claimed he got three of them. I immediately armed myself with my .45, locked and loaded. We were on the radio with the 175’s in QuanLoi to give suppression fire if necessary and I acted as go-between with them and LTC Brookshire who was the Ground Commander here. He had me put the 175’s on standby with proximity fuses, to be used only if we were over-run.
My running around with my personal weapon while gesturing had made George nervous by now so he asked me to stow the weapon. We then had a pleasant, calm conversation about what date of rank, and orders were to be followed. He outranked me by about a month or so. I asked if he wished to take command as it was his call. He said his orders were to observe, so I asked him to kindly observe that I wasn’t putting the weapon down with Ginks in the wire.
The other guys had remained quiet through this bizarre scene but acted like they understood that it had to take place. Other officers had been invited to report but also declined. I was the junior officer in the battery but now was in charge during the biggest attack in almost a year. My little experience during other attacks at Ft. Defiance had convinced me that when the shooting starts, the guys look around for guidance. Shortly after George and I had our conversation, I heard a disturbance outside and manned the opening. A dark swarthy figure jumped over the edge and flew down the stairs on his back because he saw me pointing my little cannon at him. I greeted him by saying “Welcome Chief”. It was the Chief of Smoke doing his job checking on all the bunkers. He reported to me that everyone was okay, so far. It was good to see him. He and I both learned that we needed to give some warning before approaching a bunker in this environment.
LTC Brookshire asked to talk with me and asked if we could give some counter mortar/counter rocket fire because his 155’s were out with commo down and the FDC destroyed. They were little more than steel pillboxes now in the battle. I had no way to take control of the 155’s. He also indicated that there were many wounded, some seriously, and the Medivacs couldn’t land with so much going on. The helicopter gun ships (Cobras) had difficulty identifying targets due to the smoke and dust. I declined and explained that the 8in., firing a charge 1 High Explosive round, would fly 1000 or more meters with the elevation necessary to clear the berm. We both knew that we needed to be closer to be effective.
The Ginks were probably closer than 500 meters and in trenches to avoid the tank fire. A few minutes later a blast hit near our bunker and the concussion threw me to the floor. I had never experienced such a strong blast. I had Bill ask what the hell that was. I can’t remember whether it was Bill or I who talked to the Colonel and found out that Intel reports indicated 107mm rockets were being beefed up by putting a layer of plastic explosive around the tip and covering that with some kind of metal jacket resulting in a 140mm rocket that had a blast comparable to a 155 shell. He was very worried about this weapon making his tanks vulnerable. They didn’t have much accuracy but if they hit a tank, the men probably wouldn’t survive. More of these blasts followed. Bill Biggs was now going out on one of many excursions to try to fix the commo problem with our guns. I was worried for his safety, but it was his job.
Being bumped around a bit knocked some sense into me when I realized that we had access to a much bigger weapon than that rocket. We had received a memo a week before from II Field Force Headquarters instructing how to deploy the ICM round close. I called LTC Brookshire back and instructed him we could high angle fire with short fuse times and use the round to get as close as 100 meters outside the perimeter. He had called in fire using this round and thought it would be perfect against trenched Ginks. We also briefly discussed the danger posed by a certain percentage of misfires in the bomblets. He told me to proceed to the guns and use only volunteers to deploy the rounds necessary. They would sweep the area the next day with Armor buttoned up for safety; the bomblets posed little risk to his Armor.
I gathered up as much armament as I could carry and scurried out, knowing that George Montgomery would take care of things in my absence. It’s funny how the mind works, I remember thinking about a quote from General Eisenhower, “Leadership is getting men to do what you want done because they want to do it”. I would need to frame the problem correctly. I had joined the Army, trained, and volunteered for Vietnam duty to be prepared for this moment; there was a purpose to all this. Although excited, I was surprisingly calm inside, and happy to do something outside. I felt that I was where I was supposed to be doing what I had prepared to do my whole life.
I also realized that my scurry needed improvement; I had a plan to add something like this to the training at Basic if I stayed in the Army. I would set up an obstacle course and have ropes crisscrossing about 3ft. off the ground and time everybody in an obstacle course under this rope. I figured this was more realistic than some of the running courses that we all had gone through, and was how everybody ran when being shot at. I didn’t have time to work out the problem that shorter soldiers would have an advantage by the time I got to the first section.
I let them know I was close before I got to the opening with a cheerful, “Hi Guys!” When I came around the corner I was looking at the business end of maybe three M-16’s and a bunch of huddled soldiers. They were happy to see me until I told them of the problems. Ginks were already in the wire but were on the other side of the compound. The tanks were vulnerable to the rockets being used, not to mention the bunkers. Wounded couldn’t be evacuated with so much in-coming. The 155’s were down and we may have a limited time to use the lull to deploy the ICM round, high angle, 2 second time fuse at wherever they saw the enemy and use a one second time to get closer if needed. The chief of section reminded me of the danger, and I instructed him to use a minimal crew consisting of volunteers to fight back. I told the whole crew, you have a choice, stay here and you may be safe if the tanks aren’t hit. Or we could back up the tanks as we have been doing for the last month or so, and maybe save them too. It was their choice.
I didn’t wait around for an answer. I scurried away to the next section still working on my training problem. When I arrived there, I greeted them much the same as I did the other crew, except this time I was smiling. I had a mental picture of an Army of midgets if I didn’t get my training problem worked out. I again was greeted by multiple M-16’s and the section chief happy to see me. I explained the problem as before, and told them how we could use the ICM round up close to hit trenched Ginks. I again instructed the crew chief to use minimal crew volunteers to man the gun and fight back if they wanted to help the tanks. Again, it was their choice. The only difference this time was the other crew was already on the gun and had started the engine. They would not leave their brothers in arms alone. It was obvious to me that both sections would fight back so I scurried back to the FDC to monitor the perimeter defense. I knew that a very real threat to the exposed gun crews would be any break in our defense. They would be the first to get the attention of any sappers. The belle of the ball had arrived.
I passed the medic doing his job helping someone wounded. When I arrived in the FDC, I reported to the TOC that the guns were up and would commence firing soon, I needed to know where the largest concentrations were and to keep me apprised of any break. They confirmed that no further action had taken place where the Ginks were dead. It was probably a diversion. Bill Biggs came back to report no success in finding the commo problem and told me that the first section was pointed across the compound. In a panic I scurried out to ascertain why the chief was pointing the gun that way.
He pointed at the RPG damaged fencing next to his gun. I had noticed the damage before, but now took time to examine it closely. The section chief said the round came from across the compound. I told him it was not a bullet that had pierced the wire blowing the metal inward but rather was an explosive round that blew the metal back after entering. Besides, I didn’t know exactly where this stuff was going to land and I didn’t want to risk it landing inside the base. He and I also examined a 60mm mortar casing fin we found in the dirt. I used my .45 (ok, my steel security blanket that I was still carrying) to draw in the dirt the blast outline. The section chief was concerned about me using my weapon to draw in the dirt and asked if I could use a stick. I laughed and told him no, I was almost finished. I wasn't expecting an inspection tonight. Both projectiles had originated from behind the perimeter nearest his gun emplacement. He understood immediately and had his crew do a 3200-mil turn. I briefly watched the other crew as they set the spade to fire toward some trees near their portion of the perimeter. I returned to the FDC.
The gun sections commenced firing very close to the same time. The distinctive sound of the ICM round would forever earn it the nickname of a “Firecracker” round because that’s what it sounded like; hundreds of firecrackers lit up at the same time. Immediately after the first rounds were fired, the NVA turned their attention on our guns. This small change in their plan forced them to reposition themselves somewhat in order to fire small arms and RPG’s at the two gun section areas, presenting their flanks to our tanks. The tanks were heartened by the addition of artillery to the fight and poured fire into the Gink positions. The guns took awhile to reload. I found out later that the second section had misunderstood my instructions on the first shot and had low angled its first shot through the fencing straight into a line of trees where it popped, spewing its bomblets right from where they were taking small arms fire. The fencing had deflected the round; guess its better to be lucky in war too.
Both sections then responded to the fire being directed their way. We now had the Ginks in a sort of crossfire with the Tanks. The crews learned with each round fired how to be more accurate with their “8in. mortar”. I don’t remember how many rounds were fired; I used to think only two or three out of each tube, but in a letter to my parents I wrote “multiple rounds”, with the crews also taking direction from some of the perimeter bunkers. Teamwork was one of my goals, and I felt it was achieved.
The NVA withdrew and everything quieted down even more quickly than it started. I went out to check on everybody’s condition, as the Medivacs would take some time to get here. The medic reported that we had some minor wounds; I think nine or so, making a total of fifteen wounded during the last two weeks of action in our battery. There were over sixty on the base who were wounded, some severe, but I was told a week later that all would probably survive. I don’t remember how long the engagement lasted, it could have been one or four hours, I’ve got a problem with adrenaline and get excited and combative sometimes. I realized that about 0500 Hrs I was babbling on the radio to Battalion HQ, I thought, extolling the accomplishments of our artillerymen.
I then decided to shut up and was exhausted from being keyed up for so long. The crickets were chirping very loud outside. I was surprised and didn’t know if it was me or their reaction to be heard above the din of battle. Life was returning to normal. I had breakfast and went to sack out early as usual because by mid afternoon it was too hot to sleep. Later that day I received a report that they had only found two Gink bodies in the sweep, even the ones in the wire had disappeared during the night. The Armor sweep also made note of many blood trails. To my knowledge, this was the only time the 8in. Howitzer was used in this manner during the war. I would be with the battalion for over a year after this action and never heard of anything like it again.
I awoke about noon or so and was told that the Battery Commander wished to speak with me. I got up and immediately reported to him, assuming he needed a report from me about the action last night. He asked me to follow him and I was happy to because I could be more thorough if I wasn’t rushed. I didn’t want to leave out anybody to receive the recognition they deserved. I figured I might receive an “attaboy” from him if I presented everything correctly. We headed to a private area where he turned to me and said “I need to inform you that I’m bringing charges against you for court-martial”. I was surprised by this turn of events and asked him what for? He said, besides the fact that I took members of his command and risked their lives; what was I thinking? I didn’t even have the common courtesy to inform him of what I was going to do with his command. My only response other than my first question was that I wanted to save the tanks. We had already had conversations where I was informed that Second Lieutenants weren’t allowed to think, they were only authorized to follow orders.
He then listed the offences that I would be brought to answer for: I had abandoned my post while under fire, I had manipulated the crews to risk their lives and mount and fire the howitzers, and I had installed an unauthorized minefield. He finished his dissertation by again asking me “How in God’s name did I think a piddley lieutenant could just willy-nilly lay a minefield because he felt like it?” I did what’s natural for any red-blooded American boy, I clammed up. I knew that his mind was made up. He then turned and walked away to tend to his business. I guess describing him as annoyed at me would be an understatement. I remembered as he walked away that I failed to mention evacuating the wounded. I of course was in a daze, and just wandered around some, thinking this was a strange Army I was in. I expected to report to him and he ended up reporting to me!
Those were the only questions asked of me by anybody acting in an official capacity concerning the action at FSB Burkett. I don’t think I ever mentioned to any of the guys the trouble weighing on me; they couldn’t help and it was my fight. I decided that I would fight the charges at the court martial because I couldn’t conceive of the Army throwing away an officer who had demonstrated a willingness to do battle, but I was deeply hurt by the allegations. I was near livid at the implied insult to the gun crews that I was capable of manipulating them in any way. The more I thought about it, the worse it got for the BC, even recognizing that leadership is the cousin of manipulation. The end result was that due to my own little problems, I failed to sit down with the guys and tell them how proud I was of what each one of them did in battle. Years later, I can’t tell the story without feeling the regret that my acknowledgement may have meant something to each of them, and I cry, for I failed to do so.
A few days later I asked the battery XO what was happening with the recognition of guys for their actions during the battle. He replied that the investigation continues. They were aware that some men would get recognition, but it was best if I kept a low profile under the circumstances. His answer confirmed to me that he knew what was going on.
In the meantime, the war continued. We were invited to the TOC and LTC Brookshire gave a speech confirming that the Cambodian Operation would begin tomorrow. He said, “Tomorrow we go into Indian Country”. Being part Indian, I found it strange that the 11th ACR would be escorting me home the next day. God, I didn’t do that much wrong. Of course, that’s not what he meant as he described the beginnings of the operation. The 11th ACR would begin a sweep from their current locations; ARVN Rangers would be parachuted into blocking positions at various areas inside Cambodia. As far as we had known up to now, the 8in. Howitzers had been included in the movement. There had been a change and we would be left behind - no explanation. I was disappointed by this change, and felt partly responsible. I knew that the original plan included taking us. The only reason not to was because they knew that we would join the fight if necessary, and they couldn’t control that.
Two weeks later, we were ensconced in another FSB when the Battalion Commander asked to speak with me and I followed him. I was told that I would not be court-martialed, but I also would not receive any recognition for my actions at Burkett. That is the deal that stands to the present time. I don’t remember when, but at sometime I learned that eight or nine men received the Bronze Star with “V” device for their actions. I also was told that the Battery received a unit citation, a high honor in contact with an enemy.
I wouldn’t find out some of the missing pieces until over a year later, and out of the Army for several months, while in college. A childhood friend of mine called me up and asked me to come by, he wanted to talk. We found a private area in his parent’s home and sat down. He informed me that he had worked in the Pentagon at the Artillery Officers Branch HQ, as a clerk, for a couple of years. He had recently changed jobs, taking his life in another direction. My little career in the Army had apparently received a lot of attention. We talked for a couple of hours, with him filling in some of my questions about why or how some things happened, from the beauracracy’s point of view.
Apparently, LTC Brookshire, and his Commander, Col Starry were incensed at the lunacy of the charges brought against me. Even the investigation was an unwarranted diversion to the planning necessary during a major operation, and during the course of the limited invasion. It wasn’t just me who would have been affected, other officers and NCO’s would also learn from such an example. Evidently, I was not mistaken in believing that the Ground Commander during an engagement with an enemy has command of all forces at his disposal, and yes, junior officers and NCO’s will continue to be encouraged to be nimble and imaginative in performing their duties. That’s how we win our wars.
The people at the Pentagon could only observe what apparently became a battle between commands. Of course, all this took place while I’m walking around wondering whether Long Binh Jail or Ft. Leavenworth had any special accommodations for officers. I had conjured up the Polish American Pvt Sikotic who was in command of cellblock D gleefully awaiting my arrival. I just continued to do my job. I had already figured out that the BC wouldn’t get his way with a firing squad. My friend made it plain to me that the Army would still be interested in my service once I graduated from college. At the end of our conversation, my friend gave me a big hug and told me that he was very, very proud of me. That meant as much to me as any of the awards that I did eventually earn while in the Army, because he knew the whole story.
I never did have the opportunity to work out my army of midget’s problem.
A, B & HHQ 6/27th Arty
Dec 69 to Jun 71
|Ralph Porter's Photo Gallery|
Lieutenant mentioned was George Montgomery, mentioned later in this story.
In an email to the Ed/webmaster George wrote: "...I was the Lt. that he
[Ralph] thought was pissed at him. I got six hours sleep in 72 hours during the
period of that move. I wasn’t quite so much pissed as I was hallucinatory. And,
I certainly have no memory of ever being angry with Ralph. To the contrary, I
thought he was an excellent young officer. I remember him as dedicated, and
well-liked by the men."
2(Ed Note): The first firing of an ICM in VN in combat took place earlier as noted by Major General David E. Ott in his monograph entitled “The Tet Offensive 1968” p. 27, PDF File located at http://sill-www.army.mil/FAMAG/2006/MAR_APR_2006/MAR_APR_06_PAGES_22_27.pdf . He writes: "Finally, in the I Corps area on 12 February 1968, Battery C, 1st Battalion, 40th Artillery (105-mm), while in support of a South Vietnamese unit, became the first US Army artillery unit to fire improved conventional munitions in combat. The target was 40 to 50 North Vietnamese troops in the open. The battery fired 54 rounds of the new ammunition, resulting in 14 enemy killed.
The round was a controlled, fragmentation-type ammunition similar to the Air Force cluster bomb unit. “Fire Cracker” became the code word used when a forward observer wanted improved conventional munitions."
3(Ed Note): George Montgomery writes in an email to the Ed/Webmaster: "One thing Ralph got wrong was my status. I wasn’t exactly visiting. I had just arrived at what was to be a new assignment for me, to last until the end of my first tour, less three weeks that I spent on top of Nui Ba Ra at Song Be. At A Btry, I was assigned to be an assistant fire direction officer. I joined the unit at Ft. Defiance, just about a week before the move to Burkett, and for all intents and purposes, was a bona fide member of Battery A at the time. Proud of it, I might add."