Howitzer, Howitzer, Who has the Howitzer?
As most of you know by now, I went to the Field Artillery Officer Candidate School (OCS) in early 1967 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I trained for our year long deployment at Fort Irwin, California and we went to Vietnam in early 1968. Our unit went over together and traveled on the USNS Geiger from Long Beach to Cam Rahn bay. I have a funny story to tell about that adventure but for now, I’ll fast forward to the middle of my year long tour and into the Central Highlands.
Shortly after I made First Lieutenant, I was made XO of a 155mm howitzer battery. We were located about 5 kilometers (Klicks or K’s) inside the Laos/Cambodian border in the Tri Border Area northwest from Pleiku and Kontum. We had been moved there from LZ Mary Lou located right outside Kontum to support operations in the Plei Trap valley. In fact, the unit moved when I was on Rest and Recreation (R&R) with my wife in Hawaii.
When I went back through battalion headquarters in Pleiku, the Commander Alfred J. Cade asked me if I could go out on a mission to find a howitzer. I asked him if it was an enemy howitzer along the border and he said, No Dennis it one of yours that was dropped by the sky crane helicopter (CH54) when you were on R&R. It seems that as the flying crane cleared a mountain ridge either one of the straps or slings as we called them broke and the gun began to swing wildly beneath the chopper. All the crew chief could do to save the bird was to punch the darn thing off and let it play lawn dart.
Now imagine a 15,000-pound lawn dart being dropped into a hostile location from several thousand feet. It went in barrel down and it was tough to locate as very little of the gun was visible from the air. Had it been a sling load of ammo and we would have been there immediately but by the time I got the mission, the gun had been there a couple of days. Being young and somewhat stupid I agreed to take a team from one of the Special Forces Camps and go do what we could to keep the darned thing from being a weapon for the enemy. That day I flew out to a camp at Polei Klang. I was given a team of Jeh Montagnards (yards) with a SF Team Leader and sent by Helicopter out to the general area where the gun was lost.
The SF Guy was very sharp and knew the area well. We were just a little way from the nearest hamlet but the area was well known to have a lot of hard-core North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units. It was not far off the Ho Chi Min trail and there were rumors that there were NVA tanks in the area. The area where the gun was lost was a valley between two mountain ridges it was a grassy plain with a river snaking it way down near the middle. The ground was very spongy along the river and not at all hard packed clay like the Kansas Prairies back home. It was in the fall and the monsoon season had just ended so it was cool at night and hot and humid during the day.
We established a main patrol base and sent small teams of the yards out to scout. They stripped off their uniforms and wore just a loincloth to go out into the surrounding countryside. They also left their weapons with the base team. I guess they know that a few M-16’s aren’t of much use against an enemy that could have tanks. They moved out base each day and on the third afternoon found the howitzer. When we moved the detachment to the reported site, we first saw one of the tires. The tires had been ripped off the side of the howitzer as it dug in. We soon saw the other tire but no howitzer. The team that scouted ahead sat in the shade and watched us as we tried to spot the howitzer. I guess playing Howitzer, Howitzer can you find the Howitzer was a game to them. One of the yards with me actually tripped over the lunette or donut shaped piece on the very back end of the howitzer. It was sticking up about 12 inches out of the ground. The rest of the gun was tube down to a depth of about 20 feet. There was no way in hell that anyone was going to dig that gun out. The soft ground had kind of settled back in around the howitzer.
After about a half hour of negotiation with the Special Force Camp, my battalion and the District Province Chief it was decided that we would dig down to the breach block and put a thermite grenade in it. The grenade would burn its way through the breechblock and render it unusable. The yards all took turns digging and they all chatted in their curious language and laughed at each other. I’m sure they called me all sorts of names because I hung with the Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) and refused to eat the weird collection of animals, insects and greenery they bought in from their forays out into the countryside. They had the indigenous Long Range Rations for Patrols (LRRPS) but seemed to love to augment them with all sorts of animals and minerals. The indigenous LRRPs were basically bags of freeze dried rice augmented with a very small protein source. The Americans all ate three times a day and the yards ate twice. They also wanted to take about two-hour nap in the middle of the day. Being a child of the 60’s I knew the difference between tobacco and pot. There was a lot of the pipes smoked by the yards that wasn’t just tobacco.
During the nights, my RTO and I alternated sleeping and radio watch. Normally we had a three-man team but because of the small size I only had one enlisted man with me. He had been with me when I went out as an FO earlier and loved to be out in the countryside in spite of the danger. I probably got mortared more with the Artillery than out with the Infantry. I guess we moved a lot and it was hard to hit a moving target. Every time we moved I would conduct a fire mission on our old position a few hours after we left. We would send back a recon team and see if we had gotten lucky. The VC and NVA liked to dig up the trash pits of American units to see what they could find out about what we were doing. And any information about who the heck we were. One day we did find blood trails so we did hit someone. I guess they thought we weren’t very darned important because we were such an easy target.
The end of the fourth day they sent out a couple of choppers and we were taken back to Polei Klang. After a quick shower and a good meal I was taken back to Pleiku by chopper. I soon returned to my unit and resumed the duties of Executive Officer (XO) of the battery. I’ll tell you more about that duty later in another edition of Vietnam.