'Nother War Story

During the year of 1968, I was in the Republic of Vietnam.  I went there assigned as a Forward Observer in a unit that trained at Fort Irwin, California but was ever sent out as a Forward Observer from that unit.  Our first night in the field we got our asses mortared off and I went from Forward Observer to Unit Commander in one 15 minute timeframe.  As I recall, I never signed an assumption of command order but never the less I did all the work for a couple of weeks.  After telling the 41st Field Artillery Group Commander that he was either the biggest ass hole I had met or he needed to study his Field Artillery facts better I got infused to a 155 unit over in the 52nd Artillery Group in Pleiku.  For me, that was the best thing that ever happened.  No, Barbara is the best thing that ever happened to me but getting "Infused" to a new unit was about the best thing that happened while I was in Vietnam.

In the new unit, the 1st Bn, 92nd Field Artillery (155mm Towed) I was initially assigned as the Battalion Ammunition Officer.  What I didn't know was that it was an ash and trash assignment and I spent most of my time doing odd jobs that the Battalion needed done.  One of the additional duties I had was that of Aerial Observer.  Right behind out headquarters was a very short PSP (Perforated Steel Planking) runway that an 0-1 bird dog (Cessna 2 seater) plane could land on.  On a lot of days, I would be told that I was to meet the 0-1 and fly where they needed me to go. 

In addition to covering my convoys, I often was given the mission to go out west and "Register" a battery.  What that entails was shooting at a known point on the map to align the guns with the real world.  This increased the accuracy of a unit and was vital in getting several units all aligned on one spot.  It wasn't a very exciting job but one that did a lot to make the Artillery really effective.  Normally we would pick out a stream junction on the map and the unit would send those coordinates to their higher headquarters to get clearance to shoot at it.  From the air, stream junctions were fairly easy to spot on the map and in the air.  Most of the time we had between three and four hours of flight time and the registration part would take between 1 and 2 hours. 

One day we were west of Kontum and finished a registration for a battery located in LZ Mary Lou south of Kontum and had roughly 2 hours of flight time to go west and se what the hell was out there.  There was a dirt road that went west and straight (if there is anything straight in Vietnam) to the border area.  Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam had a border and that area was called the Tri-border area.  Along the border ran what was well known as the Ho Chi Min trail.   It was an area that was outside the Vietnam area and the North Vietnamese used it to bring supplies and men south so they could attack across the border somewhere south of there.  It was pretty easy to spot because the Air Force did a pretty good job of bombing the jungle out of existence all along the border.  The rumor was that we had sensors all along the border and anytime there was a major reading in an area they would bomb the hell out of that area.

The pilot I was with was a Captain and a pretty salty dude.  He had an elephant stenciled on the side of his Bird Dog and he reportedly shot one of his marking rockets into the side of an elephant and because it was carrying a boat load of rockets, the elephant exploded and damn near blew him out of the air.  As we got closer to the border, my map was about to run out when we crossed a small set of hills.  There in all of its glory was the border and the beaten zone.  Spread out along that trail was a military convoy. 

At the head of the enemy convoy was what was one of the most feared weapon systems.  The Russians had given the North Vietnamese units radar controlled 23mm quad barreled weapon called a ZSU 23-4.  The only thing that saved us was that the convoy was halted and it appeared that the crew of the weapon system was dismounted and taking a break.  had they been at their station and had they been ready, the Bird Dog would have been toast along with the pilot and his observer, ME!   The first thing the pilot said over the intercom after the expletive "Holy Shit" don't do anything and hang on.  We dove to build airspeed and at the last minute he pulled up and went back over the short hills.  I can't even begin to tell you how scared we both were.  I immediately go on the radio back to Kontum and reported what we saw.  I know that our units weren't cleared to shoot into another country but I had been in one of the 175mm unit Fire Direction Center and seem the holes on that side of the border. 

The pilot called back through his unit on the higher frequency radio and soon there was a Forward Air Controller over the area.  We left it in his hands and we "beat feted" it back to   the airfield at Kontum to refuel.  By the time we got back to Pleiku, they wanted us to go directly to the Aviation headquarters to brief on what we had seen and how we saw it.  The pilot warned me to say that we had observed the convoy by flying high enough to see the convoy from above the ridgeline and not to mention that we had actually been if the airspace of another country.  Works for me.  It might have been difficult to explain had we actually been shot down. 

The strange result of this whole incident was that when I returned to my base camp, the word was out that I need to go to the battalion tactical Operations Center.  I was assigned out as a Forward Observer to the 3rd Bat, 503rd Infantry (173rd Abn) and would be gone for at least two weeks.  It turned out that that stay lasted about 6 weeks and I always felt that I was sent out of the area to hide me from any fall out of what had happened.  The Company I served with kept telling me that the Forward Observer they sent home on emergency leave had developed Malaria and I was stuck until they could find a replacement. 

While I was out on the Temporary Duty Assignment (TDY) with the Air born unit, the Field Artillery Group assigned two young officers to the Aerial Observer slots and that ended the flying for the Battalion Ammunition Officer.  The only really bad thing was that both of those young officers were killed in a crash while I was gone.  They had been flying  high low hunter killer sweep and when the low plane took ground fire from a 51mm machine gun it pulled up into the flight path of the high bird.  That crash took the lives of four fine people. 


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