The first night in the field in Vietnam was a disaster for the 6th
Field Artillery. Someone decided that we were needed up the coast from Cameron Bay to support a Republic of Korea (ROK
) operation. They were going in and cleaning up an area right after the Lunar New Year (TET-68) As you might remember, that was one of the biggest battles of the war and thousands of North Vietnamese Army (NVA
) and the local Viet
Cong got together and tried to kill as many Americans as possible. It turned into a slaughter for the NVA
and it allowed the American firepower to be brought at will and set back their operation at least a couple of years.
I am convinced that had they just stayed in North Vietnam and stayed at the peace table in France they would have found a way to end the combat and then do exactly what they did in the 1973 time frame.
But, back to my story. We left our training and staging area in the Central Highlands near Ahn Khe
in the early morning. The convoy to the new area took all day and it was a long dusty ride for a bunch of fresh from the States soldiers. Add almost a month on a boat to that and we were really worse for the wear. This bunch of fresh rookies finally arrived in our new position area just off the coastal highway right before dark. Someone had decided that we would put the entire battalion in one area and there were 18 howitzers lined up across the field. The engineers were there still stringing up a perimeter fence and someone brought in a D-8 Caterpillar to dig a hole and the resulting dirt mound had a searchlight jeep placed up on top to constantly scan the perimeter as it was finished. It was a bizarre scene for me. I knew that the searchlight jeep provided some help to the engineers but it almost destroyed our night vision as it went round and round the perimeter. To me it also gave anyone who looked a great view of where everything was. It was so typical that the leadership had decided that the threat from any local activity was low.
An artillery unit goes through a transformation from convoy travel to a tactical setting. In addition to unloading the guns, there was a lot of ammunition to unload and bunkers to be built. The priority was to provide fire for the operation going on in the hills to our west. The rule (I found out later) was that an artillery unit did not sleep until there was overhead protection for the crews. That meant in most cases a unit would operate continuously for 24 to 48 hours. Most of the people were beat and about three AM most of the people were putting up their cots and going to sleep for the rest of the night. There was no rain so most of the people put up their cots out in the open and racked it for some precious time asleep.
My Recon team (one LT, one Opn
Sgt and a Radio Telephone Operator (RTO
) ) were still with the battery as we hadn't been assigned to a unit out in the operation yet. I figured that we had a day or two and we would then go out. I worked the team hard to build a bunker near the rear of the area and had completed a splash way at least two feet high and hadn't started the top cover yet. My RTO
had been on a gun crew during our stay at Fort Irwin and Sal knew his friends were pretty tired. Sal had been sacked out in the back seat of the jeep all day and wasn't as tired. He asked if he could go over to his old crew and help them. Sure, why not he was a young kid and most of the guys there had been with him for six months.
I am not exactly sure how long later. You must remember that this story took place almost 40 years ago and has been tainted by my memory lapses and added to by the BS factor that all good war stories suffer from. You know that if you tell a good story more than once it gets spiffed up to make it more enjoyable by the author and to the audience. Not in a malicious way but as i say, "Hey, its my story". I would estimate that it was between 3 and 4 AM I herd the first "Thunk" of a mortar. You would think that after hearing the outgoing 155 mm artillery a thing as simple as a "thunk" from a mortar over a thousand meters way would not be a big thing. I'm sure that a lot of the guys never realized what it was but I had a first hand experience on the perimeter at Ahn Khe
and it sure caused me to sit up and take notice. That story will be later.
After the first mortar round landed and exploded inside the perimeter it was followed in rapid succession by another 25 or 35 rounds mostly aimed across the front of the position where the howitzers were lined up and then at the Searchlight on top of the pile of dirt. To say it was rapid and accurate is an understatement. We got our asses kicked by a small recon team and it was a blow that we never recovered from.
The mortar rounds landed all around the area and I did my best to turn into a turtle under my flack jacket and helmet. It never ceases to amaze me how distorted your perception gets when your adrenalin starts flowing. I was scared shit less and stayed right where I was. I'm sure that it was all over in two or three minutes and when I looked out at the scene, it was illuminated by a jeep trailer on fire at the side of the battery. We lost most of one gun crew, the unit XO
and the Battery Commander were all wounded by shrapnel and were being taken over to the side away from the fire. The jeep trailer had been full of gas cans to help power the Fire Direction Center generators. They just hadn't had the time to put them in a sand bag revetment to protect them. Their priority had been to set up a tent and get operational. I don't fault them for what happened.
As it turned out, my RTO
, Sal had been on the gun and the crew tried to swing it over towards the mortar position. One of the mortar rounds hit right between the open trails on the gun and wounded most of the crew. Sal was hit in the legs and he was told to run over to the side of the battery to get away from the gun. He saw the jeep trailer and jumped under the only cover he saw. (Cover is a term for something overhear to protect you) In this case it was a bad choice as one of the last rounds hit right in the bed of that trailer killing him and setting the gas on fire.
I went out to the battery and tried to organize the guns in case there was a ground attack to follow the mortar attack. I found that I had less than three of the six gun crews able to function and follow directions. We moved the wounded to the triage point for evacuation and did our best to get a head count of the wounded and missing. It was almost like the blind leading the blinder and chaos reigned. I took charge as best I could and it wasn't until a Major from battalion came over did I even begin to realize the trailer was a bond fire we didn't need. I told a couple of guys to get a fire extinguisher and put out that damn fire. Lots of noise and cussing followed and they finally did what I told them to do.
As I heard the fire extinguisher make a whoosh, one of the artillerymen said "Oh Shit" and promptly threw up. On the boat ride to Vietnam I had heard that sound hundreds of times and I went over to see what the matter was. They said there was a body under the trailer. I told them to get it out and they almost in unison said, "Fuck You LT! That ain't our job." I told them to cool down and let the fire go out for a while and we would tend to that later. I probably could have had the charged for disobeying an order but hey, I wasn't sure that I had the authority or time to press the issue. Besides
, there were wounded to take care of and plenty enough to keep us busy.
That stupid Major from battalion came back over and asked about the casualties. I told him that all of the wounded had been moved to the evacuation point and as far as I knew we only lost one Killed in Action (KIA). I told him the body was under the trailer waiting to cool down enough so I could take care of it. He told me to get right on that and he didn't give a shit if I burned my hands doing it. (nice guy Huh) I went over and saw some steel banding straps off some box there. I looped the strap around the upper part of the body and pulled it out. The head and face wasn't completely burned but the lower part of the body was almost completely burned. I asked for a flashlight and tried to recognize the face. "Shit oh dear", it was Sal. He had a nose that was hard to miss. It was evident that the mortar
round had caused a large piece of the jeep to almost cut his head off and than k god he was dead before the fire got to him.
I would like to tell you about the rest of that night but it was so blurred and went so fast that it was well into the next day until I had time to think or do anything but help the soldiers keep it together. We did put Sal's body in a poncho and take him over to the evacuation point. When we got there, I saw 9 or ten other bodies under ponchos also. By the time we got there. most of the wounded had been Medi
to a field hospital somewhere. Of the 90 man unit we were down to less than 45 and there was a lot of work to be done.
Later on, I found out that a lot of the killed were in a fire direction center that had been put down in the hole by that damn searchlight jeep. I guess the mortar men had
used the light as an aiming post and a round had gone down in the hole and hit right on the chart table as the Fire Direction Officer (FDO
) had spread a map out to plot where to return fire. Almost the entire team was killed outright and the rest was wounded. I went over later on in the day and viewed the carnage. I found the LT's
helmet and it still had part of his scalp in it. It was crushed from fron
t to rear and the hole was a bloody mess. That was the first time I had ever smelled the stink of death in battle and the entire day is one that I still try to forget.
Part 2 is dedicated to Salvatore Agri
, a kid who was a wonderful guy and dedicated soldier. My he rest in peace. MUD