FIRST SQUAD ASSIGNMENT

  When the sun came up September 10, 1969, it was Sunday morning and LZ Ike looked much worse than it did when we arrived the evening before.  The first thing I remember seeing was Johnson peeing in the water that was standing in the LZ. I thought, Oh my God! I was in that water last night. I saw other guys using the same water to shave. The battalion commander told us that were not leaving Ike until we had gooks piled in the wire all around the berm. We had several piled in the wire that day. One of them I shot. I felt pretty good about it too. I knew that several of us hit him at the same time, but I called him mine. Brown came over to me and told me that I would be getting Blue 3. He said “Go ahead now and settle in, it looks like we gonna be here for a while.” I went over to Blue 3 where I met Jackson. He started telling me how to operate a mortar. I interrupted and told him that I had been trained on mortars in AIT and in NCO school. Jackson looked at me and said, “Man that don’t mean nothing, man, like I mean, that don’t mean shit. You’ll have to learn everything all over again cause you in a damn war now man. Don’t be talk’n shit bout what you know. I mean, I’ll help you here and all, but don’t try to tell me what you know.” I said, “OK.” I looked around and saw that the aiming stakes were positioned wrong. I asked Jackson why the aiming stakes were set the way they were. Jackson said, “There you go talking shit man. You need to keep your mouf shut til ye know what the hell ya takin bout. You understand me?”

  I thought Jackson and I would never be able to get along. That proved to be wrong. Of course, I had to prove myself to him, but he turned out to be a good guy. I had noticed that the front aiming stakes were set 180 degrees out from the rear aiming stakes. That was wrong. I knew that the stakes were supposed to be at 0400 and 2800. There was complete logic to that placement due to the fact that the M34 aiming sight on a mortar sets right next to the barrel. I walked over and asked on of the other guys at another gun pit why they had the aiming stakes set up like that and he just said, “Cause that’s what Brown said to do. You don’t need to be asking questions and acting like you know something that he doesn’t know because he can really get pissed off.” I thanked him and went back to my gun.

    I heard the phone in the gun pit ring. Jackson answered the call. When he got off the phone, he said we had a fire mission to the north. He said he would set the gun and I could pull the charge. I asked what is the charge? Jackson said they didn’t tell him that yet, that they always call back and get that. It turned out that it was taking at least 3 calls on the land line to get a fire mission set up. The first one was to let the gunner know which direction they would be firing. The next one was to get the deflection and elevation. Then they would call back and get the charge. I was amazed but kept my mouth shut.

    Later that day Brown came by my gun pit. He asked me if everything was going ok. I told him everything was fine but that I was a little confused about several things concerning the fire mission process.  Brown asked me what I was confused about. I mentioned the placement of the aiming stakes. I said the way your fire mission comes out you could easily fire 180 degrees in the wrong direction. He said no that can’t happen. We tell them what direction the fire mission is going. I replied that I felt someone was going to get hurt because it would be too easy for a new person, like myself to misinterpret the direction. Brown called me a damn cherry as he walked away.

  That night I stayed up on guard duty in my gun pit until about 1:30. Jackson was with me in the pit. We did not talk much. I was watching what everyone was doing on the LZ especially in the other mortar gun pits. I believe Jackson thought he had intimidated me and was feeling pretty good about that. I was in people watching mode. I felt that there was a lot to learn. Maybe the way Brown did things was better than what I had been taught. I kept going over in my mind the processes that were being used and comparing them to what I had been taught stateside.

  At about 1:30 Jackson suggested that I should get some sleep. I asked where. He said around there in that hooch. I eased around into the hole designed as the entrance to the hooch. It was spooky in there. There was an air mattress laying on two pallets. I laid down on the air mattress. There was dirt on the mattress. It stuck my skin like sandpaper. It was hot in there. I sat up to take may T-shirt off. Bumped my head on the metal. “God, what am I doin here?” Got my shirt off, put it in my steel pot and laid back with my head in the steel pot. Just as I was starting to settle down, there was a turmoil and a noise from some king of animal. I thought, “What tha hell was that?” I crawled out of the hooch much faster than I had gone in.

    “Jackson, what’s with the noise in the back of the hooch?” “Oh, some people been throwing empty C cans in the back of the hooch. Some rats are getting into them. Go on back in there. They ain’t going to bother you.” “Have you slept in there with them?” “Yeah man, all the time.”

    I crawled back in the hole, laid back down on the mattress, put my red lens flash light on an ammo box beside the air mattress, and was determined to go to sleep. I did just that. I was tired. It had been two days since I slept. I was out of it. Some time passed and I awoke feeling weight on my chest. I opened my eyes, but I could not see anything. It was really dark in that hole. I eased my hand over the light that I had laid on the ammo box. When I felt the light, I turned the switch to on. OH, MY, GOD!, the biggest gopher rat I had ever seen was laying on my chest facing me. I screamed, the rat panicked, and ran rapidly across my left shoulder, scratching me with every step. I was instantly out of the hooch. I started to tell Jackson what happened and he started laughing. I asked Jackson if he really slept in that hole, and he said yeah, they don’t bother me. Maybe they’re afraid of me cause I’m black. I thought Jackson was crazy.

    The next day, we had to wear flack jackets all day because we kept getting incoming mortar rounds. Every time about three guys got together, a round would fall right where they were standing. We could hear the tubes pop out in the jungle. Everyone would take cover, and we did not get anyone hurt during the incoming. Late in the day, someone saw a reflection about 200 meters outside the berm. They got a sniper out to the berm, and after a few minutes the sniper popped the dud right between the eyes.

    On Wednesday, a detail was organized to bury the dead gooks. It was hot, and they had been laying out there in the hot sun since Sunday. I thought I would walk out to see the one that I had shot. I had looked over the berm several times at him, but I could not get a good look at him from inside the berm. An old boy from Chicago was on the detail. They had put on gas masks, so I did the same. Chicago started trying to be funny. He chastised one of the dead gooks for being in his wire. The gook was in a rather contorted position laying in the wire. Chicago hit the gook with a rake. When he did, the gooks hand fell off and maggots poured out of his arm. Chicago turned around toward us and was throwing up into his gas mask. He was fighting with the straps to get them loose. Somebody yelled, “Somebody better help Chicago.” Someone else said, “Looks like he’s on his own.” I knew I had seen enough so I went back inside the berm.

    We were on LZ Ike for several more days. We then moved to a bridge near Phoc Vinh, north of Saigon. We were there to guard the bridge. We were guarding on one side of the river and the ARVNs were guarding the other side. That was a good place. Nothing ever happened there. We went swimming in the river, shot rats, and did a little target practicing. I set up a hooch on top of a bunker. I did not want to sleep in a bunker. A few days after we got there, I had a heat stroke. I got medevac’d. When I came back, I was wearing glasses. The doctors said I would have to wear the glasses all the time. They were right.

    At the bridge was the first time I remember Capt. Jones. Jones was a West Point graduate. He was a really nice guy, but he never tied his boot strings and never buttoned his shirt.

    A few days after I had the heat stroke, I was sent out to the field with a small group. We set up a little perimeter. We dug a depression for the mortars and used the dirt to fill sand bags. The first night, an artillery round went right over our heads and landed 100 meters beyond our position. Everyone hit the dirt. The LT called on the radio to ask for a cease fire. He was told that there wasn’t anyone firing in our direction. Another round came over. I don’t remember what the outcome was, but we did not get hit. Maybe it was a gook rocket.

    While we were out there a chopper landed a short distance away to resupply us. Some guys went out to the chopper to get the supplies. When they came back, they had milk in quart cartons. White and chocolate milk. I love milk. Someone came walking up and said we would have to share the milk. I had caught one. It had been on ice and was very cold. I opened the carton and turned it up with great anticipation. After about four big swallows I realized the milk was spoiled and clabbered. I blew the crap out after having swallowed way too much. I felt sick for a while after that. The milk had been allowed to sit on a runway somewhere until it spoiled and then they put it on ice. That was typical of the things we got in the field.

    I was sitting writing a letter when a Lt. came into the area and asked where Richards was. I answered. He called me over to an area away from the other men. He said, “Have you been trained in mortars?” I said yes, in AIT and again in NCO school. He informed me that some men who were out on listening post got killed in one of our sister battalions. They were killed because the men on mortars fired their guns 180 degrees away from the intended direction of fire. I continued to listen. He said, “I understand you expressed concern over procedures we have been using.” I said, “Yes sir, I have been very concerned.” The Lt also stated that he understood that I had told some people that this was a possibility. I answered in the affirmative. He then said, “I need you to explain to me how everything is supposed to be done in mortars so I can get this mess straightened out.” It was clear at that point that he wanted information that he could use for his advancement. I explained that mortar training is a complex undertaking that cannot be just explained. I told him that he could not possibly learn everything about mortars in  a few minutes. I suggested that he get a training manual for mortars. He said he had checked on that and none were available. He said, “You will have to write the manual.” I thought, “You are out of your frigin gourd.” And then answered that it would take some time. He instructed me to start giving it some thought and put my ideas down on paper. He said, “I’ll look over it and make any corrections that are needed. Oh, by the way, how much education do you have?” I told him I had a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture. He looked at me and said, “Why in the hell are you in mortars?” And I said, “Military intelligence, SIR.” I did not see him again until we got back to the bridge.

    We rode back to the bridge on twice and a half trucks. It was the dry season, we were on a dirt road, and there was at least one truck ahead of us. I was sitting at the back. Slim Eubanks was sitting in the middle. Little Alabama (Charles Rushing), was between us. Alabama fell asleep and laid over on Slim. I looked down after a while and Alabama’s left ear was completely full of dirt. The dirt was now draining down the side of his face. I pointed it out to Sim. Slim said, “Ah don’t bother the little boy, he needs some sleep.” I believe Alabama may have been in Slim’s gun squad. I will see both of them next week at our reunion. They can clarify this point. When we got back to the bridge, Alabama could not hear a thing in his left ear.

    I had made several notes and started an outline of the training procedures that would be needed. At the bridge, I began to write my training procedure in earnest. I got assigned as the section leader over three mortars. I believe this was the thank you that I received for straightening out the mess we had. I knew there would be reluctance on the part of the men in the platoon. I mean after all, I had only been with this group of men a short time, Brown was gone, they didn’t trust me, they didn’t even know if I actually knew any more about mortars than they did. There was some pretty sharp harassment. And then, I started the classes. At first the other section leader, Sgt. Keeton, a really good guy even though he was a lifer, did not like being instructed by me. He had more time in grade than I did and he told me that. He said, “You should not be instructing me, I should be instructing you. I have been in the Army longer than you and I have more time in grade. They should let you write the class and I should be the instructor.” I had only been in the Army about 14 months, but that was long enough to learn that knowledge is of little value in the Army compared with time in grade. And some people can’t figure out why we could not win that damn war! I’m sure the military has changed by now (yeah-right), but the idea that a man can do anything just because he went through the training is ludicrous. Well, I’m just glad I live in America where I can make fun of dumb shits who ran the Army during Vietnam.

    Let me clear up exactly who I am talking about! Though I was a member of the Young Democrats at UGA in 1964 and worked hard to help get Lyndon Johnson elected, I would have to put him at the top to the dumb shit list for being big enough fool to get us committed to Vietnam with no plan to win the war. Damn right, I said WAR! When I came home from Vietnam, my father-in-law, who served in England and North Africa during World War II, said, “What if you had gone to a real war?” Well, from all the guys who served in Vietnam and many of who gave the ultimate sacrifice, let me explain that anytime you are in a foreign country trying to either kill or keep from getting killed because you were sent by the United States of America, you are in a “By God, REAL WAR”. My second tier of dumb shits would have to be all the politicians who rubber stamped everything Johnson suggested. They knew that Johnson wanted to be a domestic president and knew nothing about executing a war. I won’t even mention the puppets Johnson had at the cabinet level. For the most part, they had to be brainless, or they would have given Johnson better direction. Oh well, I said I was not mentoning them.

    And now let’s get to the generals in Vietnam. This was a new war, a new enemy, a new arena, and they were clueless as to how to deal with an enemy that did not wear uniforms and who hid in the jungle to ambush and kill by savage methods. But with us as rats in their new lab they experimented with various tactics, but never seemed to figure it out. We all said then, and I still say now; if we had been given the order, we could have kicked every ass in Vietnam in 6 months. Some said we would have needed to get all the rear echelon trash out into the field to fight, but I maintain that they would have made matters worse. No, all we needed was a winning policy from the top down. We should never have entered Vietnam without a end-game in mind that was “us winning”. We have had the same problem ever since. I’m on the box, so I will finish. If we ever get out of Iraq and put our full focus on Afghanistan, where it should have stayed in the beginning, and then win in Afghanistan, we must redefine our military actions moving forward.

    And now, back to the mortar problem. We started the classes with lots of laughing on the part of the peope who had to attend the classes. We started out with the basics. I taught them the proper method for setting up and laying in the motar. I taught them to set out the aiming stakes at 0400 and 2800. Both sections were taught these procedures. Then we had several timed competitions. I would use the Aiming Instrument to lay in my section after the guys had set up their guns. I would read and call out a defection to Gun 1 and while they were setting that defection on their M34 sight, moving their gun to line up on the aiming instrument with that deflection, I would read and call out defections to Guns 2 and 3. We would cycle back through this procedure until they read back the same defection that I called out and declared their gun laid in. Sgt. Keeton would do the same procedure with his section. Once we turned it into a competition, the guys began to get competive and have fun. Next, I taught the men how to set up a proper fire mission. They honed their skills until they worked like a fine machine.

    During the time while I was training the gun crews, I was also working with FDC. They had to be retrained in the proper methods for plotting a fire mission and calling that mission successfully to each gun crew. We then began conducting simulated missions until all elements of the mortar platoon were functioning at a high level.

    We never had an accident in the mortar platoon after that training with the exception of a few short rounds caused by wet powder bags and one hang round which caused us considerable concern. One of our short round happened in Cambodia during 1970. Our Battalion commander was sun bathing on top of TOC. We hung a round that apparently was a little bit damp. It went off like a charge zero and only went about 250 feet right in the direction of the LTC lounging on TOC. I screamed short round two times and the LTC scrambled under cover. The round landed on top of TOC (Technical Operations Control). Needless to say, the LTC was pissed. He came over and chewed my butt out. My LT was gone at the time so I got the initial delivery of ass chewing. When the LT got back, he got his butt chewed out, so he had to chew my butt out again. Yes, it will always roll down hill. The key to dealing with it is to smile and say “I’m sorry for my mistake.”, even if you know it was not your fault. While in the education arena, when facing a person who was so mad they looked like their freeze plug would blow any minute, I would always say, “I’m really sorry you feel that way.” The person would usually say, “Well, that’s more like it. All I wanted was an appology.” They never realized that I did not apologize.

    Our duty at the bridge continued for some time with interspersed little excursions into the jungle on a few missions. The duty at the bridge was great and we did some interesting things while there including fashioning a make-shift ice cream freezer which we used to successfully make ice cream on several occasions.

 

 

Posted by Randall at 9/15/2008 1:37 PM

Categories: Echo Company, 1st Cavalry Division, 2/8, Vietnam, LZ Ike, Mortar Platoon

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