Trolling For Targets

War Zone D, Vietnam 1966

By John Girardeau III

John Girrardeau PhotoI served in an 8-inch/175 mm artillery battalion in Viet Nam from October 1965 through October 1966.  During this time I served as forward observer, battalion fire direction officer and air observer.  My primary assignment was forward observer.   In this job, I coordinated, called for and adjusted artillery fire on targets for the combat units to whom I was assigned. I usually worked with Special Forces, South Vietnamese Rangers, or with the 1st Infantry Division, 1st Brigade’s Armored Cavalry reconnaissance unit.  As a “free lance” forward observer who worked with units which did not normally have organic observers, I was totally unsupervised by a higher organization.  Like Paladin of TV fame, my paraphrased business card could have read “Have (Cannon) Balls, Will Travel”. (Note: It takes a really big pair to call blind, unobservable high explosive artillery fire near yourself and friendly troops during a firefight in heavy jungle where you have only about 20 feet of visibility and can only judge where the incoming projectiles are landing is by the sound of their detonation!)

When I was not on special missions as an observer with ground units, I worked either as one of our battalion’s fire direction officers or as one of the battalion's air observers.  As the fire direction officer, I supervised the team that decided which guns or units would fire and calculated the firing data for the guns based on what the forward/air observer requested.  Since this process happened very rapidly (seconds!!) the fire direction officer’s instructions to the crew were very rapid and final.  Our time standard was 3 minutes from the time we received a call for fire from an observer until projectiles were in the air on the way to the target.

Photo L-19 Bird DogOur battalion had two L-19 Bird Dog light airplanes , one H-13 helicopter and three pilots.  One of these three aircraft was usually in the air, day or night, along with an observer trained to call for artillery fire when targets were located.

I usually flew with 1LT Marce Pearson.  Our three battalion aircraft were nicknamed “Zoomy Birds”.  Marce’s nickname was “Zoomy Three” since he was the junior pilot.

Our flights were usually about two hours in duration.  As young lieutenants, Marce and I tended to bore easily.  We developed a strategy to “troll for targets” as entertainment on our long flights.  I would take a smoke grenade, pull the safety pin while holding the trigger lever down.  I would then hold the armed grenade in my hand with my arm out of the plane's window.  Marce would fly the plane very low over the jungle with the wheels almost hitting the treetops.  When NVA/VC (North Vietnamese Army/Viet Cong) troops on the ground would fire at us, their bullets, which were supersonic at that range, would make a popping sound as they flew past our plane.  As soon as Marce and I heard the “pops”, he would jam the plane’s throttle “balls to the wall” and start evasive maneuvers.  I would release the smoke grenade in my hand and get a call for fire in to one of my fellow lieutenant fire direction officer buddies who was on duty in the battalion fire direction center. We would then proceed to blow away a couple of square kilometers of War Zone D jungle around where the smoke from the grenade I had released was rising above the treetops with our battalion’s 8-inch howitzers.

Photo 8 inch GunAfter about a month or so of doing this,  1LT Zoomy Three and I could fly at treetop level for hours without hearing the supersonic "pops" of bullets passing our airplane.  The NVA/VC had gotten the message……don't screw with small green airplanes flying at treetop level…..if you do, Hell fire and brimstone in the form of two hundred pound high explosive artillery projectiles with fuses set to detonate in the treetops over your heads will arrive in about three minutes!!!

John Girardeau III  Then and Now
HHB 6/27th Artillery
Oct  65 to Oct 66


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