|The Expendable Gun|
|Coming from my memory thirty-six years later, this is the story of The
Expendable Gun. I was still a fnewgy at the time, probably in country less than
two months. We were on a convoy from Quan Loi to some other firebase whose name
I can't recall. One of the 8 inch self-propelled howitzers had a mechanical
problem. I think its track system malfunctioned. The battery mechanics tried to
repair and get this vehicle moving again but were successful only in
establishing a neutral gear so it could be moved a short distance.
A provincial militia unit had a base close by that was determined to be the most secure area to leave the track and crew for a limited time. It took some time to get permission, and to push and pull the track into the secured compound. As an afterthought, or so it seemed to me, I was ordered to accompany the gun crew and howitzer just so an officer was present to deal with our hosts. We were issued some c-rations, a radio, and water and were assured that the engineers would be there tomorrow to fix things and join the battery back together. Our personal weapons were determined to be all that was necessary for our security. Thus begins my lifelong study of Murphy and his various laws.
By the time all this had occurred, it was late in the afternoon. The other battery members rode off in their functioning vehicles, abandoning us to our fate. A quick check of our surroundings was not comforting. It was not the same semi secure and organized base that we were accustomed to. To make matters worse, we didnít have access to an interpreter, and nobody in our host unit seemed to care whether we communicated with them or not. In reality, our presence probably was more a threat to them than we appreciated. The result was dubbing our little contingent as the "Expendable Gun" by several of the crewmembers.
The chief, Master Sgt Jones, and I realized we had a morale problem and took pains to reassure everyone that our situation was only temporary. We knew that our enemy would reconnoiter and plan before an attack would take place, and that would take days, if a unit were close by and available for such an operation. We were reminded that the base had obviously been here for some time and that our hosts were as well armed as us. Their primary job was road security. They probably could be trusted. We spent some time debating this aspect of our situation, then set some guard rotation of our bunker.
It was well after dinner before we decided to talk to the rest of the battery on the radio, figuring that the banter would reassure our nervous little group. We quickly realized that we had no radio contact with the battery. We were unsure of the cause of the radio problem, weak battery, poor antenna location, or some other malfunction. Some time was spent researching this to no avail. Needless to say, this rekindled the talk of the Expendable Gun aspect. I saw this as a challenge to my normally optimistic character, and reacted by stressing the positives. My upbeat assessment only made matters worse. The crewmembers were now convinced that I was oblivious to the situation. Sgt Jones and I had a heart to heart talk away from his men in order for him to be satisfied that I wasnít nuts.
This afforded the men an opportunity to plan their next argument to convince me of our desperate situation. When we returned from our talk, the men reminded me that if they were the Expendable Gun, this made me the Expendable Lieutenant. Sgt Jones took exception to the perceived slight, but I readily accepted the designation and carried it through to the conclusion of the operation. We decided to keep secret our commo problem because any enemy would fear us calling helicopter gunship support more than a useful radio would bring benefit to our situation. We then settled into our night guard rotation.
Sometime the next morning, shortly after we had all awoken, eaten our c-ration breakfast, and brushed our teeth, we ran out of potable water. Not to worry, I told the guys, the engineers were surely on the way and they would have extra water for us. By lunchtime, we were surviving on bits of snacks, and candy bars because our rations were used up. Some of the guys were getting thirsty but the water that was being used by the militia unit was questionable. Their source from which they happily filled their canteens reminded me of an old horse trough my grandmother had on her school grounds, including mosquito larvae.
A few of the guys took it upon themselves to don their helmets, flak jackets and weapons to reconnoiter a village nearby that we had observed our hosts visiting. It was a couple hundred meters away, so safety was a concern, but not critical. They returned about an hour or two later, having secured some warm Vietnamese beer and some sandwiches. The beer was drinkable, probably even clean, even though it was bottled in Saigon. The sandwiches were questionable; neither guy had eaten until they returned so we could inspect the ďchicken sandwichĒ. They were decidedly not chicken and instigated a debate for over half an hour before any of the owners took a bite. They claimed that it was edible even if it was dog, rat, monkey, or lizard meat. Hunger had won out. More importantly, we were able to come up with enough piasters to go on a needed shopping trip, albeit armed to the teeth.
I avoided the sandwich shop, deciding that a little convience-type grocery mart would be the place to go. It was here that I discovered that dried octopus was a common snack food and was tasty, nutritious, and affordable. The warm beer was even tasty while munching the octopus. By dinnertime we had all found something to eat and had plenty of warm beer to cheer us. We had a little party. By dark, we figured that the engineers werenít coming, so we drank their beer too, saving some for brushing our teeth next morning. I canít remember if we posted guard that night, but things were calmer, everybody was more content and the dissention that had plagued us the night before was gone.
The next morning, we were out of piasters for food and drink. The guys were a bit surlier but we had survived two nights and the engineers had to be right around the corner. By lunchtime we decided that the Army rule about using dollars to pay for stuff with the locals needed some tweaking. Another very limited shopping trip ensued, concentrating on beer, snacks and more octopuses.
That night it started raining. Things were quiet except the frogs, crickets, and other critters in a jungle. Our batteries were gone so the darkness made it more of a problem to give our limited bedding a shake to prevent sleeping with something poisonous. It rained hard all night.
It rained all morning. I now had plenty of water to brush my teeth, but not to drink. Stale warm beer was the liquid of choice for hydration. We were a glum group by the time the engineers showed up early that afternoon. They were surprised that we werenít happier to see them. I was sure that they didnít want a kiss so I couldnít understand the complaint. During the whole process, we had been plagued with rumors, stories seemed to come and go and circulate for no apparent reason. Addressing the rumors had become a problem for Sgt Jones and I for obvious reasons.
On the way back to the battery, I decided to start a little rumor myself as payback. Once we were secured with the rest of the battery, I visited the gun crew to thank them for their efforts, and to lament that Iíd heard a rumor that weíd used up our in-country R&R at Vung Tau so I hoped they enjoyed their stay at the beach. Iím sure the company clerk got some enquires to that effect.
I would like to invite any gun crewmembers to add to or modify this story because I know my memory isnít perfect. I apologize that I donít remember any names except Sgt Jones, and Iím not sure it was his gun crew. I salute them all, including or especially our host militia unit who lived in those conditions constantly and treated us respectfully even though we brought certain risks with us. We never informed them of our limitations and needs because of embarrassment that their needs were as severe as ours, including the security problem.
A, B & HHQ 6/27th Arty
Dec 69 to Jun 71
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