|These stories are written in a rough chronological order beginning when I
arrived in Vietnam. To better understand the Army at war, the learning and
maturing process of a volunteer soldier, a reader should start from the
Expendable Gun” was my first attempt at writing and if viewed on the
website, should be the first one read.
A bit more background is necessary: My grandfather, Ralph Mercurio, served in Army aviation during WWI at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma assembling the new war machine; the airplane. Ft. Sill was one of the bases that trained pilots for that war. He told me a story about dealing with these new pilots: they wouldn’t fly a newly constructed airplane until the mechanic who had assembled it could prove that it would fly. He had to take off and turn it around and land while the pilot observed from the ground before the pilot had confidence that it was assembled properly. His carpentry skills were developed while serving in the Army. He also enjoyed the bit of flying he engaged in and was understandably motivated to assemble the airplanes properly.
My uncle, Elmer Mercurio (uncle Buster), also had this love for flying, and became a fighter pilot during WWII, starting with the P-47 and converting to the P-51 midway through his tour. He helped carry the fight through France, Belgium, and Germany, but completed his requisite number of combat missions before victory was achieved. He was serving in the D.C. National Guard and died in a training accident flying a P-47 a few months after I was born.
I joined the Army with the intention of becoming a pilot, understanding that competition for available spots at Flight School was keen, but thinking my family background would give me a bit more desire to be successful. I assumed that all warrior Army pilots wanted to fly Cobra gunships with all that firepower at your fingertips; that was my dream job. While at Basic Training, the Army offered me the opportunity to attend OCS. I knew that the rank of Warrant officer would follow once I completed Flight Training so I needed to be convinced that Flight School would still be available if I was commissioned a Lieutenant. I was assured that both Commissioned and Warrant officers were needed in service and I would have the opportunity to attend either way, should I be commissioned or not. I would find out later that I was not expected to be successful in OCS; my opportunity was simply the Army using an unusual set of circumstances to review its aptitude tests.
Once commissioned in August, 1969 I was stationed back at Ft. Sill after a short leave to await my orders and Flight School date where I served as assistant to the Protocol Officer, working out of the Visitor’s Bureau. All soldiers serve the needs of the Army first. Our allies were taking a more active roll and more of the available positions at various military schools, especially Flight School went to them. One of my classmates, 2LT Frank Bengston was also awaiting a class date at Flight School. We had been friends in OCS and continued to pal around some. I was impressed by his vocabulary, out going personality, sense of humor and ways of describing our various predicaments.
I didn’t go to Flight School due to a minor sight problem that heretofore was waived for flight recruits. The doctor who informed me that I didn’t qualify anymore actually apologized because my sight was so good. I was then given some time to consider a choice of a more permanent assignment by my superiors. I was urged to study and select any school in the Army system other than Flight, or as an alternative, offered an opportunity to work at a very nice job with good potential for career enhancement. I choose Jungle Training in Panama, a two week course that had a good record to be helpful for Forward Observers. I explained to my superiors that it was time for me to get to work, I was needed elsewhere.
Frank received his orders and was posted to Flight School before I left Ft. Sill in November 1969. While I later was serving at Bravo Battery FDC, sometime in October, 1970, who should walk in delivering a packet of classified materials but my friend, Frank Bengston. He was the pilot of an OH-6 Cayuse light observation helicopter (LOH). In conversation while checking out his ride, he invited me to accompany him to the MACV compound about 6 to 8 miles further out. I was excited by the prospect of a quick ride and wanted to see the compound that was within our range fan for firing defensive fires for them, so I readily accepted the offer. I grabbed my helmet and .45, told the guys in the FDC where I was going, and off we went.
We were airborne before I realized that I should have asked permission of the Battery Commander for this little jaunt, but figured it would take only a half hour or so and maybe he wouldn’t notice I had disappeared. I quickly realized that observing proper military protocol was the least of my worries. Frank was intent on showing me the capabilities of this fine aircraft and his ability as its pilot. The LOH was the sports car of the military aviation world at that time. This little sucker could fly sideways, hop over trees, dive down cliffs following waterfalls, and fly under trees following a creek bed. Frank claimed that it was possible to do a sort of summersault with this baby; I chose not to doubt this claim. This can all be accomplished at 80- 120 mph so that the enemy can’t get a good bead on you with his AK-47.
I reminded Frank that there were intelligence reports of the enemy stringing chains and wires across low altitude flyways to ensnare some aircraft. He acknowledged that he knew of those reports too. I decided that maybe I shouldn’t talk too much and distract him from trimming the trees. I noticed how exquisitely beautiful the jungle surroundings were, this area avoided the use of herbicides. Being so far removed from most populated areas, it was wild and picturesque. I forgot my camera too, not that I would have had a chance to snap a picture of anything memorable because we were past it by the time I realized I saw it. Frank was obviously a very good pilot, but I was happy to land and walk around the compound a bit after a 5 to 8 mile roller coaster ride. I also missed my flak jacket, and sub-machine gun. It’s weird how you get used to the most mundane military equipment for protection.
We returned in much the same manner by a different route, taking a quick half hour out of my day. The Commander didn’t find out I was missing so I was happy to have had the experience and lived through it. Frank made a delivery on another occasion and I think we chatted a bit over a soda.
While processing out of the country in June, 1971, I bumped into another OCS classmate and he informed me that he heard about a month earlier that “Bengston” had been shot down in Cambodia. He had no more details. Some research showed that 1LT Frank W. Bengston and his crew consisting of an observer and machine gunner had been downed, and killed by an RPG on May 7, 1971. The losses suffered by our aircrews through all the wars we have been in since the introduction of these war machines has been staggering. We are fortunate to have the committed and talented people manning these machines.
As noted in my last story, I reported in for my six month tour extension mid-January, 1971. I was directed to the new Battalion Commander, LTC Albert Wolfgang, who was in his office. He welcomed me back and explained that there had been some changes in my absence. I was informed that I would officially hold the Aerial Observer slot in the battalion but unofficially would be his S-2 and would spend most of my time conducting those duties. He assured me that I would accrue enough flight hours to qualify for flight pay each month so I could save for college, which is where the Army also wanted me to go. I expressed concern regarding my qualifications for the job, explaining I had no training. I feared serving in such an essential position, in this dangerous situation, with all men in the battalion depending on me. I was surprised because the Colonel developed a smile while I was explaining my concerns. When I quieted down a bit and gave him a chance to speak he told me he had a very good Master Sergeant who would teach me how to perform my duties properly. We then proceeded into the S-2 section office. I was introduced to Master Sergeant D. The Colonel then asked him to teach me how to be his Intelligence Officer.
MSG D and I spoke briefly before we broke for lunch. When I returned early in the afternoon I was informed the first order of business would be to inventory and take responsibility for the battalion safe where all classified documents were stored. We were involved in this task for less than five minutes before we found a document labeled “TOP SECRET”. MSG D said “Oh no”. He explained that the safe was only rated to store up to “secret” documents. He didn’t know where this document came from but it shouldn’t have been there. Trying to be helpful, I suggest that we carry it outside and burn it. I was then taught that this document belonged somewhere. He had the clearance to work it out and I couldn’t take over the safe at this time (I only had a “Secret” clearance). A week later we completed the process. I asked MSG D if he found the home for the document and he confirmed that it was properly taken care of; he then added a bit of information by telling me he had no idea why it was so highly classified. He had read it and saw no reason for it to be more than “classified”, much less “top secret”.
Phu Loi was a much bigger and more secure base than I had been associated with during my first year. Our barracks were somewhat normal wood buildings with metal roofs. They had a row of sandbags stacked around the exterior about four feet high to provide a bit of protection. We received incoming rockets only once or twice while I was there. The Operations Center was in a heavily fortified bunker, we spent most of our time there performing our duties. The perimeter outside the wire was cleared for two to three hundred meters, very flat terrain. Farmland used for growing vegetables and rice surrounded most of the base.
Sometime later that week, my first Aerial Observer session was scheduled and I reported early that morning to the flight office down the road a bit. I was directed to an area where the pilot was preparing his 0-1 Birddog for service. I introduced myself to (I think) WO-1 Rick Harris. He took a quick glance at me and told me to lose my M-16; they weren’t allowed in the plane because of safety issues, being too cumbersome. I asked if I could take my little .45 sub grease-gun, stored in my quarters. He allowed that would be okay. He said I had a bit of time to get that accomplished and return. He also advised I would be wise to bring another flak jacket to sit on. This wasn’t for comfort, the added one inch butt elevation afforded better visibility out the rear windows. I would realize later I had a psychological “thing” about being shot in my bottom that this second flak jacket alleviated by being folded and sat on. I made a quick round trip and we were underway. Rick handed me the motion canceling binoculars he signed for. Thus began a habit during air observing days to gather my canteen, .45 cal pistol with 2-4 clips of ammo, .45 cal sub with two thirty round clips, extra box of .45, knife, snack, and maps of III Corps and adjoining Cambodian areas. I also had a notebook, pencils, pen and the frequencies and call signs of all Battalion and some Corps artillery units and personnel.
Our first order of business was the registration of a new tube for one of the batteries. Registration was required because the smallest differences in caliber and setting the tube in the gun housing could cause dramatic differences in muzzle velocity and angles for a round leaving the tube. Flight time to and from the firing batteries was approximately an hour, with more time necessary to put us over most of the target areas in Cambodia. We chatted about flight procedures, and how I could take over control from the back seat if he was wounded or killed. I was instructed how to fold down the peddles that controlled the wing flaps and mount the stick in an emergency. We had gained some elevation to proceed the most efficiently, being near halfway there when Rick turned around and told me to hold on and watch. We went into a straight down dive and spin. I was at first concerned about the spin and his ability to control it. That was followed immediately by fascination of the loud sound . . . WEEYEEWEEYEE. . .YEE.
I was heretofore under the impression that in the movies this sound was dubbed in on the sound track for effect. This is a very loud sound, and the ground is approaching quickly. Rick pulled us out and we leveled off and he turned around smiling and asked how I was doing? I’m sure there was some green showing about my gills, but I smiled and asked if we could do it again? I eventually realized that all military pilots have a need to test their passenger(s). This has less to do with being macho, but being more akin to figuring out who this person is he’s sharing this mechanical foxhole with. A panicked passenger under fire is as dangerous as the fire itself. I mostly flew with Rick but on occasion other pilots took me. All but one, a Captain, had some form of obvious test.
A month or six weeks later, Rick gave me the opportunity to fly from my backseat perch on the way to our mission area one morning. He said he was tired and needed some rest but I suspect that he just wanted to be certain I had been paying attention and could handle an emergency. I assembled the controls and flew the airplane for twenty minutes or so, and I thoroughly enjoyed my brief pilot experience. He woke up and said I had the orientation askew but we were on course and hadn’t lost much elevation.
Trying to glean as much information as possible from all the pilots I flew with, I would always questioned them about the best observer and/or best ways to look for targets. They all had some abilities in this skill and I thought I could learn something. I remember one of the pilots telling me that George Montgomery had been the best observer he’d flown with. I acknowledged I had served with George and considered him a friend. We talked for some time about his talent but this pilot had no idea how George was able to find the enemy targets as well as he did. I need to note here that George stopped flying in March or April, 1970. This conversation took place probably February or March 1971, almost a year later, but his service was remembered as special. I was able to pass this bit of story along to George before his untimely passing recently, another reason to get these stories out.
In calling in fire, being an Artillery Observer is proudly acknowledged by all Artillerymen as ”the rich man’s sport”. I loved calling in fire missions especially for the heavy artillery. I had occasion to witness a smaller caliber weapon once for comparison. We were flying over Cambodia, roughly near max range for the 175’s of either Alpha or Bravo battery. Rick saw a machine gun emplacement on top of a bunker tucked under a grove of trees near a trail we had been following; we are in a “free fire zone” and considered any activity sited as enemy. This very large bunker was improperly camouflaged, indicating that it was not NVA but was probably their ally, the Khmer Rouge. I call in the 175’s to deal with it but the FDC informed me that the wind was blowing the wrong way and the target was over a klick (kilometer) too far to hit.
While I was working with the FDC, we were flying several miles away in deference to the range of a heavy machine gun, but I continued to observe the area through my binoculars. We couldn’t engage with the 175’s so our mission was to just report it as observed. Rick told me that he was able to contact a pink team (LOH flying low with Cobra gunship backup flying high), working the area nearby. Rick walked the LOH in from the best angle and got an immediate confirmation. The Cobra engaged immediately with two rockets on its pass but missed slightly high putting the rockets into the center of the grove, igniting a series of secondary explosions, (apparently they had stored their artillery ammo there). I wasn’t much impressed with the rockets relatively puny explosions but the results were effective as the center of this 6 to 8 acre grove blew up slowly with dozens of explosions.
I was observing through my binoculars when I noticed movement around the bunker and saw many figures exiting the bunker and running away from that grove into trees on the other side of the trail. I was excited and yelled “fire for effect!” Hoping the Cobra would engage with his mini-gun. The LOH was already involved in an assessment pass, which they accomplished and immediately correctly gave a “cease fire” order. They then explained that women and children were present. Apparently, the Khmer allies saw fit to expose their wives and children to our attack, counting on the U.S. military to recognize and follow proper procedures amidst the smoke and dust of this operation. This sequence of events would later become more relevant to me.
The 8 inch Howitzer was the most accurate weapon in the Army arsenal at this time. As an observer, you got spoiled a bit relying on this accuracy, coupled with the 200+ pound projectile loaded with TNT, the resulting explosions are notable . . . this isn’t a firecracker. You can observe the concussion wring in a concentric ring the moisture and dust from the explosion’s center through the tree leaves or grass until the “BOOM!” is heard and felt by the airplane. The 175mm gun round has plastic explosive and is recognizably whiter in center blast with similar effect on the leaves but the sound hitting the airplane is a “CRACK!” The concussion alone will kill anyone within 100 meters in the open; it will scramble the brain cells. Shrapnel can kill an exposed enemy at much longer range but it is a less sure effect than the concussion. I never had an opportunity to fire on exposed enemy troops.
I had witnessed some Air Force “Arc Light” missions using B-52 bombers from various firebases. These missions, when conducted at night would make quite a light show over the horizon and many of us soldiers would stand on top of the bunkers watching hundreds of silent white puffs in the distance. This would be followed five or ten minutes later by the sound of a low rumble caused by these blasts, and your fatigue trousers would ripple as if in a wind except there was no wind! The fabric movement was caused by the concussion ten, twenty, or more miles away.
I was always grateful to be calling in fire missions for the 8in and 175mm, commonly called “heavy artillery”, whether firing on an enemy target or during a registration mission necessary for a newly installed tube. However, I had served long enough in the firing batteries to recognize the hard work and risk behind all rounds fired. Standard procedures at this time limited unobserved missions fired, but by definition anything I called in did not have any restriction other than good sense and normal ground and air clearances.
Sometime in March or April, 1971, we were flying close in to one of the batteries. Criss-crossing a trail one morning when Rick asked me to look closely at a certain large tree he pointed out. I used the binoculars and confirmed the entry, seen from one angle, of a tunnel tucked under this very large tree on the edge of some very heavy foliage. I immediately called in a “fire mission” on this target giving reasonably accurate coordinates of this tunnel. We received clearance and engaged quickly - the first 8in round landing 2-300 meters away. I adjusted and the next round landed about 100 meters away. I adjusted again and looked thru the binoculars when I received the “splash” notification from FDC 5 or 6 seconds before impact, knowing we would be close this time. (FDC notifies the observer with “shot out” when fired and “splash” timed before impact so the observer can take appropriate action, sometimes in the middle of a firefight). I was focused on the tree when I saw in quick succession, a limb clipped, a puff of dust at the edge of the hole, then the round went off inside the hole. This was immediately followed by the largest explosion I witnessed during my service in Nam.
Both the 8in and the 175 “center” of the explosion, or blast area looked to be 5 to 10 meters in diameter, but the ground focuses the force up so it often looked like a blast 20 to 30 meters high followed by the smoke and concussion already noted. This secondary explosion from the hole blew upward 400 to 600 meters, not quite as high as we were flying. The manner in which the explosives (which would probably be used for terrorist activities like mining roads and bridges), were stored under ground, apparently focused the explosive force up in columnar form. It took me a second to remove the binoculars and refocus on the blast. I was able to observe this for a second. The root ball of that large tree, mixed with rocks, limbs, and chunks of the trunk all flipping and churning up from the ground, still gaining altitude. Rick reacted quickly and very prudently by turning the Birddog away from the blast, presenting the smallest profile to the concussion to follow. I lost sight of the blast for a minute or so. Fortunately, we were observing from far enough away that it posed little danger to us, although we were rocked violently almost immediately after he completed the 90 degree turn. It was interesting to see large rocks and tree limbs flying through the air almost as high as we were. The dust and smoke obscured any further observations and we weren’t about to waste time waiting out of curiosity. I reported the tunnel destroyed, with large secondary explosion, job well done by the firing battery.
Calling in fire for the 175’s brought a bit of another problem. They were not as accurate as the 8in but could still be adjusted into a target to good effect. The distances we were sometimes dealing with made accuracy more problematic. The 175mm gun can shoot 21 miles, the same distance that we were limited to conducting operations in Cambodia. Flying over Cambodia’s low mountains and heavy jungle I called in a mission near max range once, 19 to 20 miles out from the battery, “shot out” required a minute and half wait before receiving “splash”, then. . . nothing. I had the battery then re-fuse with a proximity fuse (triggered by a sort of radar as it nears a target, also called the VT fuse, and was probably the most effective new technology responsible for our victory in WWII), and fire again. This would allow the blast to appear above the jungle canopy so I could sight it. This worked with the impact appearing 3 to 4 kilometers away. I don’t know if it was a mathematical error, or a mechanical problem with the gun sites but I was able to walk the rounds into the target, an unoccupied bunker. Once the tube was warm, it was reasonably accurate. The white smoke could easily be confused with the jungle mists that wafted around the creeks and gullies. The concussion would collapse most structures, even bunkers built to withstand some assault.
Calling in “fire missions” was not my only duty while flying. We were primarily intelligence gatherers with the responsibility to file reports about any areas with unusual activity. A minor observation allowed me to use my “grease gun” once. We were flying over a relatively flat open area “free fire zone” in Cambodia when I sighted a sizeable herd of cattle. They were out in the open munching on some grass and well within range for one of the batteries but I would be laughingstock if I called in fire on them even though they were obviously a food source for a hidden enemy unit nearby. There was absolutely no civilization for ten miles, or more. Rick and I decided that I could spray them into a stampede and maybe annoy the enemy enough to shoot at us so we could call in fire. He banked the Birddog enough for me to lean out the window safely popping off a thirty round clip at the cattle 2,000 feet below. They did stampede, kicking up their heels in panic and disappearing into the surrounding jungle. Rick was worried about me putting holes in his airplane but we accomplished this stunt safely to little effect.
On another occasion, flying over Cambodia slightly further than 175 range we spied an obvious but modest airfield. We both needed to urinate so we landed and stayed near middle of the field. I grabbed my sub and follow Rick (who carried a .38 cal revolver that I considered as effective as a souped-up pea shooter in combat), about 30 meters away from the airplane and he observed something not too far distant so I turned about to watch our backside. We both were standing there peeing for a bit, back to back when suddenly he started running back to the plane and said “get in quick”! My reaction of course was to face back to the way he was looking to address the threat with my sub, still peeing. I’m focused on the tree line 60-80 meters away looking for movement. He’s now back at the plane zipping himself up so he yells “get in or I will leave you here”! I quickly scamper back to the airplane and climb in with my personal weapon still flapping in the breeze. I’m baffled by what he saw, and he explains after we were airborne. He recognized the tire tracks in the mud as belonging to a Soviet aircraft commonly used to medivac the enemy who were badly wounded but could be saved with advanced care. We left our mark on enemy territory. I don’t know why they didn’t shoot us except it was early afternoon snooze time.
We discussed this startling discovery for several minutes, neither of us had the training to follow the implications of an enemy airfield in what we considered our backyard, being so close to a couple of batteries. Rick filed the report accordingly; he was positive that the tire tracks were Soviet. We were still within the 21mile limit allowed for operations within Cambodia. This would be an early harbinger for the attack on the cities of An Loc and Song Be in early 1972: being first use of Armor by the NVA in the jungle, they would need to reconnoiter the terrain closely with high ranking officers to determine the limitations and suitability for such an operation. This modest airfield was a perfect transit point.
I occasionally flew cover for a platoon or battery making a tactical move. These were usually somewhat boring flights except we knew to keep a sharp lookout for possible ambush or road tampering evidence. One move was a notable exception. I forget which battery was under orders to move, or why, except there were constant small pullbacks taking place in 1971. The road was not in terrible condition but was the basic dirt road that had 80 to 125 meters cleared on both sides by herbicides. The battery halted their progress due to some mechanical problem; I think the rear axle of the tractor trailer carrying a Howitzer became detached. The Battery Commander used my altitude and radio to request assistance by, the Service Battery Commander or an Engineer unit Commander to come and help them or send an engineer unit to lend assistance. After much explaining, it was over an hour before word came back from battalion headquarters that the battery was to hold its position on the road and help would arrive tomorrow.
It was now early to mid afternoon and this plan proved to be unacceptable to the firing battery commander. Neither commander could hear or respond directly to the comments and direction from the other so I am in the middle of a contentious ongoing conversation that lasted quite some time. Understanding the anxiety of the trapped BC (Expendable Gun story), I took considerable time to point out his tactical strong points to try focusing him on preparing for the night’s defense. The other commander stayed in contact believing (I think) that he might find some way to be more helpful the next day. This eventually degenerated into them cussing at each other in frustration. Regulations stipulate that cusswords not be used over military frequencies, and I was filtering out these words which only added to the frustration of each commander. I had already been in trouble for using inappropriate language so was sensitive to this regulation. I accurately passed on the meaning with careful rephrasing. Before long, I had earned the ire of both commanders who were now convinced that I was the reason that this problem wasn’t being fixed properly. They thought the other commander didn’t understand the problems because he lacked the cusswords attached to them. They both on some kind of cosmic cue decided to start cursing me. This was my longest day flying. The pilot weaned the Birddog to save as much fuel as possible so we could circle a large area closely looking for any possible activity. Eventually the trapped battery settled down to business and configured themselves into defensive form and we flew back home.
I arrived back in Phu Loi well past 1930hrs, and hungry, so I went to the Officer’s Club for a snack. The Battalion XO, Major Anthony Valponi greeted me and inquired about my day. I responded it had been a rough one. He smiled, bought me a beer, and informed me he monitored the entire goings on. I said it must have been entertaining, he admitted it was but decided not to step in because I was doing such a good job with it. We had a good laugh. Somebody else flew cover the next day to finish the move.
MSG D. proved to be a very good teacher, he had an understanding of the rules and knew how to process the actionable reports we received from Operations, the Defense Intelligence Agency or G-2 at 23rd Group HQ. I assisted him as much as possible and prepared a report each evening for the Battalion Commander, including the weather report.
Early on, doing some exploring, I noticed a small building on the Phu Loi base that had a sign labeled “CIA, Restricted Area”. Having some time one day, I knocked on the door. A voice inside called for me to come in. I entered into the dimly lit large room and introduced myself as the acting S-2 for 6th of the 27th, I was looking for intelligence to address with heavy artillery and concerned about the safety of our batteries. The almost middle aged guy sitting at his desk told me welcome and congratulations! I was obviously bewildered by this response, so he explained. He had been serving at this location for nearly two years, and I was the first officer to cross the threshold. I asked if there was some restriction I was unaware of? He answered that he was here to serve the Army units and provide whatever intelligence that he could to be helpful, exactly what I was looking for.
This CIA station chief asked me to sit down and then proceeded to give me a very good briefing of the enemy activity in the western and northern III Corps area. He had a situation map similar to the one we had in our operations center. We discussed some of the known problems and limitations, and he answered my questions to the best of his ability. He obviously liked talking to an AO who had heavy artillery backing. I spent nearly two hours with him and left with an invitation to return whenever I wanted.
Once back at Battalion Headquarters, I informed the Colonel of this asset on our base and asked if he had any objection to me occasionally stopping by for updates on the intelligence we received from the Defense Intelligence Agency, explaining that others apparently avoided contact. He opined that there may have been some interagency rivalry going on but he had no objection to me seeking “actionable intelligence” from any dependable source. (I think this is the first time I heard this term used and I was impressed by its descriptive content). I would stop by every week or two for updates and reanalysis of the reports we both received. My contact was not always there but we developed a relationship.
This would eventually lead me to proposing a small operation for Alpha Battery now stationed in Bu Dop. I asked the Colonel to consider a one to three day artillery raid north towards the II Corps/III Corps border area. The NVA were using this junction as an infiltration route, knowing that cross border responsibilities would complicate and/or delay response times. Combat forces were in the midst of a large pullback so some regions weren’t being covered as effectively as in the past. ARVN forces either weren’t able to cover all these areas or weren’t concerned by this activity. The enemy was taking advantage of this, making new trails and a series of bunkers along the imaginary border region. There was an old logging road leading out of Bu Dop going north towards this area where there were multiple sites to set up the battery or a platoon of guns for twenty to twenty five miles. These new infiltration routes wound past the Charley Battery area of responsibility and approached Saigon from the north. The Colonel was surprised by my proposal and asked me if I had noticed that we were pulling back in the opposite direction?
I answered in my normal aggressive artillery personality. The enemy wouldn’t be expecting such a move and we would have a short time to relatively safely do some damage to his efforts. The problems I anticipated were getting enough extra airtime to do a thorough search of the area for targets. The vulnerability was during the actual convoy up and back because the route had not been cleared of vegetation, there were risks. We would need some extra security forces attached. LTC Wolfgang considered the basic plan set before him and informed me that he would discuss this with the 23rd Artillery Group Commander. I was quite pleased with that result and I was excused to return to my other duties. I never heard another mention of that proposal, and concluded the war had changed.
As a junior staff officer, I would occasionally be assigned other temporary duties to assist in a problem. One duty required me to take a half day course to help prepare the tax returns of any soldier in need of assistance. There wasn’t much need for this service, thank God, because all enlisted personnel were by law exempt from paying taxes on their military income. Officers were exempt for their first $1,000 per month but owed taxes on income over that. My assistance fortunately was needed very little but one NCO did require some help beyond my ability to provide the answers. I realized ten years later while I was taking the H&R Block tax course for my own benefit why I had such a struggle. Soldiers did have to pay taxes on income from other sources and this NCO and his wife owned some rental property. I was most impressed in conversation with him that he was adamant that his wife shouldn’t be bothered with this task, the stress of their separation was difficult enough and he should be able to get this accomplished. He informed me of his plan to acquire several rental properties before retiring from the military and they would be reasonably set for life. I would remember this and use the same logic once I graduated from college.
In the meantime, finding someone capable to guide us in the intricacies of the U.S, tax code and I think the finer points of depreciation and how many different ways it could be applied to income proved to be too much for my limited training. I hope he didn’t end up in trouble with the IRS for any guidance I rendered. I suspect he and his wife are multi-millionaires somewhere enjoying their retirement, I sincerely hope so.
In mid-April 1971, I was called into the Commander’s office; he wanted to speak to me. I reported immediately to him. He started by putting me at ease and informing me he was under orders to reduce the battalion officer staff by one position. He then offered me the opportunity to return home one month early. This was much unexpected, my mind went into compadre mode (why does he want to get rid of me), (he has many officers who would be tickled pink to go home early), (what did you do wrong?). LTC Wolfgang was a very good commander; he was a step ahead of me. He informed me that he instructed the S-1 to find the officer currently who had the most service in-country. That person was me. He then informed me that he had no desire to lose me, I had been doing a good job for him. I asked if I could think about it a day or so. He said the decision wasn’t needed immediately. I was also informed that I was authorized to complete my R&R that was already scheduled in a couple of weeks. That evening I remembered that I had walked out of college mid-semester when I had decided to join the Army. This would be a problem that would take some attention going back to the same community college. I accepted the Colonel’s offer the next day, figuring the extra month would allow me to get registered for the Fall semester. I felt like a heel. I was cutting out early before the job was complete. I never did celebrate the feeling of being “short” (coming close to the end of your tour). This guilt would haunt me for quite awhile.
I have few memories from the month of May, 1971. I believe returning from R&R and finding out about Mickey Wilson’s death put me in a bit of depression. Finding airtime for observing missions was becoming more difficult, I suspect that the air units were having as many mechanical problems with their equipment as we were in the artillery. The stresses of combat weigh on metal as much as flesh, and psyche. Over time these little maintenance problems add up.
On June 2nd or 3rd, I was informed of another death in the battalion that by regulation would require a report by an officer from another unit. I was instructed to report to Alpha Battery and confirm the death by suicide of a PFC. I was not expected to perform an in depth investigation, that aspect was completed. My duty boiled down to confirming that some conspiracy hadn’t occurred to rid the unit of an unwanted individual. This was an unusual assignment but they thought at battalion my history in Alpha battery would allow me to perform this task with sensitivity and accuracy. I was most impressed that such a regulation existed; obviously a problem existed previously in Army history.
The next day, I was provided with a helicopter for the trip, I reported back to headquarters and wrote my report. I checked in with the First Sergeant at Alpha Battery, and informed him of my report duty and was given access to the battery and personnel to complete this task. I think the PFC was a member of the FDC, or worked with them closely because that is where I found his fellow soldiers to interview. I recognized and engaged several soldiers in private conversation about the PFC, while strolling through the area, very informal and friendly. It’s doubtful that any had a sense of the seriousness of my task.
One of the first I encountered was Sgt. Lester Higa; he expressed his surprise and happiness at finding me there for a visit. We had a relaxed conversation about what each of us had been up to for the past year or so. I then mentioned the PFC, and a sadness, and some degree of regret for not seeing there was a problem came into our conversation. While inspecting his bunker, (which had not been disturbed, other than removal of his body, awaiting my clearance), I pursued this line of questioning in an attempt to be thorough and helpful to the Army in the future. Les informed me that the PFC was helpful and carried out his duties in good spirit, was a valued member of the team. The only hint of trouble was his penchant to be a very private person who kept to himself more than most other soldiers.
These sentiments were echoed in subsequent conversations, all expressed regret and loss. There was no evidence of conspiracy; in fact the morale of the unit had received a blow that the commander would need to address. Most soldiers in the stress of war turn to each other and become more sociable. Some of these friendships last a lifetime. It is more unusual, but accepted if a fellow soldier retreats to his bunker or private area for reading, writing home, or reflection. Personalities being different, how long one distances himself from others in the unit becomes a problem only when it impacts completion of the mission. In reality, there was probably nothing that could have been done to be helpful and change the decision the PFC made. I returned to Phu Loi and submitted my report; the Army, Alpha Battery, and his family all suffered a loss, may God be merciful in His judgment.
Less than a week later, I went through processing to return home. The only big decision I made that required a lot of thought and reflection was disposal of the sub-machine gun that I had developed a fondness for. Returning home for my 30 day leave, I had avoided any inspection. I knew that this weapon would require a special permit to own once at home but getting it there was illegal and I could be punished severely if caught. I decided that a year and a half of honorable war service wasn’t worth risking for such a nice trophy. I believe I turned it in to the battalion armorer (gunsmith) for the next Aerial Observer to use.
Processing out went smoothly, I bumped into several other officers that I knew from Ft. Sill, and we traded stories. It is amazing the impression you can leave on other people’s lives in a brief encounter. One of the officers I encountered remembered me from his first day at OCS. I was waiting for my parents and siblings to show up for my graduation ceremonies so I went into the barracks to wait and found some new candidates who had just been issued their rifles. I gave them a quick class on how to properly clean the weapon, and wished them luck in their training. I Informed them that approximately half of them would make it. This officer said he remembered me because they used to talk about me for the next 8 to 10 weeks; I had been the last to show a kindness along with commitment to duty. This exhibited to them that one could graduate with some semblance of humanity intact.
On the jet home, most of us were reserved and quiet, a few who knew each other talked and were animated and excited but others were in a reflective mood. I was hopeful for the Vietnamese, their military capabilities were expanding. Their leadership cadre was more proficient. The civilian side of the government was another matter. Corruption was a problem that seemed to have no end and was the cause for much consternation with the officers that had to contract regularly with government and business dealings. I had arrived in country and served with about 480,000 other GI’s. I left 240-250,000 GI’s to finish the job. I was surprised to realize that I hadn’t seen one dead enemy soldier. There were bodies collected at bases where we had action but I never took the time to view them, feeling the effort was somewhat ghoulish. I never saw an enemy force to call in fire on with the exception at FSB Burkette when I gave the order for the point blank fire mission. The enemy policed the results themselves. I count these results as blessings and view the effort made as honorable. I couldn’t imagine a more important, productive, and exciting three years of my life to be spent doing. My military service defined my introduction to adulthood, and the war focused that service, besides, I was good at it.
The trip home for out-processing was by another route, I’m confused by all the different routes and stops made by the charter flights. The attendants were always professional and helpful, but the Pacific Ocean seemed to go on forever so I slept as much as possible. I arrived at Ft. Dix, New Jersey about 24 hours later and was processed out of active duty in less than a day. I remember being interviewed by a Captain who made note of all the different jobs I had held. He even enquired as to whether I enjoyed the service, which I found odd because no other superior officer had ever asked me whether I liked something. He was the last active duty officer to stress my need to attend college, explaining the Army would then be happy to entertain my desire for more service. That was 10 June, 1971.
A, B & HHQ 6/27th Arty
Dec 69 to Jun 71
|Other Stories By Ralph Porter
Ralph Porter's Photo Gallery
Deconstructing Defiance - April 1970
The Battle at Burkett, Choices Made
The Expendable Gun