Semi-REMF Stories, Americal 69-70

by

Dave Nisse

 Cherry XO Gun Bunny

 I had been the acting battery executive officer (XO) for a platoon (3 guns) of 155 towed artillery, 3/16 battalion, 23rd Americal Division, at the Tien Phouc Special Forces camp for about a week. The temporary position had been opened as a result of splitting up the battery in order to support a small mountain top firebase to the southeast of Tien Phouc. This area was thought by S-2 (intelligence) to be heavily occupied by NVA forces. As a result, the new firebase was quickly hacked out of the jungle. It was occupied by a Special Forces team and a strike force of local Vietnamese forces along with a platoon of 155s in order to do battle. Unbeknownst to the higher-ups and us, these same forces had assembled and were moving on Tien Phouc. Tien Phouc was in the center of a small valley about halfway to the Laotian border to west of Tam Ky.

The camp contained a sprawling, intermixed collection of local villagers and US Army. Around the perimeter of the camp were small fields of barbed wire in a tangle foot pattern mixed with concertina wire. Inside the wires were a series of fortified bunkers connected by a network of shallow trenches sided with low walls of sandbags that ran all the way around the camp. Outside the wires were drying rice patties as it was approaching harvest time. The knee high green rice plants and fields radiated out from the camp all the way to the hills and mountains surrounding the valley. To the north was a hilltop outpost that overlooked and controlled the only road in from the coast that ran in through the rugged hills there. A similar outpost was situated to the south and controlled the main pass and trail in from the heavily canopied jungle mountains rising up all the way into Laos. Inside our perimeter scattered around the south side was a small village of local Vietnamese and mercenaries. In the center of the camp was the Special Forces compound, which had a huge concrete bunker with a quad-fifty mounted on its roof that commanded the entire valley. A quad-fifty was a large crew-served WWII-era antiaircraft machine gun mount with four .50 caliber machine guns that could be fired simultaneously. It produced an absolutely devastating amount of firepower against ground targets.

The guns of our battery were on the northern side of the camp roughly in a circle with the XOís post, a small shack, in the middle. The Fire Direction Center (FDC), battery headquarters, and mess hall area were on the East Side of the battery (our rear). The three gun positions on the side of the battery closest to the mountains were occupied, the others empty, their guns having been airlifted into the new firebase.  A parapet wall, a small circular wall around each gun position acted both to provide some cover for the crews and as support for the guns under recoil when the ground turned soft during the rain. The parapets were made from dirt-filled steel powder canisters and were roughly 10 yards across. Into the parapets on opposite sides were built two bunkers (pits) which housed the powder and the projectiles (called projos). The guns usually rested on mechanical jacks positioned at the center of gravity underneath and between the towing wheels. This was so they could be easily swung around in a 360-degree arc. Once in position, they were lowered off the jacks and fired. This then drove the spades at the end of the trails (2 long metal arms) at the rear of the gun into the ground. The spades and wheels then provided a stable platform from which the howitzer could fire very accurately.

 After a few days of on the job training (OJT) as battery XO, I fell into a daily routine. Up at dawn to verify that all guns were commonly aligned from a small tower over the XOs post using a surveying device. Then a quick walk around of the gun positions to insure no problems had arisen with the crews, guns, or ammo. That was followed by a day firing or waiting on missions, the boredom being broken up with a marathon Pinochle game with chief of smoke (NCO in charge of the guns) and switchboard operators. I managed to hold my own having grown up in a card-playing family. The long nights were broken only by harassment and interdiction (H&I) fires scheduled at random intervals. The weather wasnít too bad at that time of the year. It was hotter and more humid than most of us were use to in the middle of the day but a breeze blew down out of the mountains in the afternoon that cooled things off so that it was just bearable. This breeze also kept down the ever-present aroma of the latrine wastes burned in cutoff 50 gal cans with diesel fuel.

 I had just come down from the XOs tower after laying the guns, when the first incoming rounds began to fall. The gun crews scrambled into underground bunkers dug deep near the gun but away from the powder and projo pits. I hurried into the XO post and into my flak jacket and helmet. I then began to anxiously wait for the fire mission that I was sure would happen any moment to return fire. The incoming rounds were whistling in and exploding about once every 10 or 15 seconds or so with a loud crumping noise. After a few seconds at my post, I realized that my phone operator was under the plywood desk that ran the length of the XO. When I looked at him quizzically, he pointed at the roof and said, "weíve only got 2 layers of sandbags on a tin roof and that wonít stop shit, sir". After a moment of thought, I decide the 1/2 inch plywood wouldn't really add any appreciable protection and sat down at the desk near the phone. I tried my best to look calm and cool as I waited for either that fire mission or a round to come threw the roof.

 After a few minutes, the incoming stopped. A little later, a call came from FDC asking for a status on the guns and crews. I had the operator ring up each crew and get the reports. We had not taken any hits at all. The fire had been directed at the some other part of the camp. I stormed over to FDC and asked why we hadnít returned fire. They responded that we didnít have any counter battery radar in the area and that it would be a waste of ammo unless we had a good location on enemy guns. This didnít make sense to me and I argued that since we fired H&Is at suspected enemy locations then we should also be able fire at suspected enemy firing locations. I told them that we should at least have plots of the most likely places we could be fired on from. This could be based on S-2 information about the enemy weapons in our area of operations (AO) and a good map analysis. We should fire a few rounds at each of these locations when we didnít know where it was coming from. They assured me that that was not standard operating procedures (SOP) and as a newbie, I begrudgingly shut up.

 The next morning at about 0300, we were awoken from our uneasy rest by fireworks up on the eastern strong point. A few minutes later the firing died down. The Special Forces called us and told us to blow away the OP as it had been overrun. There were no friendlies left up there. In fact, we later learned that three Special Forces guys were MIA from that fight. We proceeded to plaster the OP until dawn, when a pair of F-4 arrived on station over the OP. They worked over the hilltop with special bombs that spayed out hundreds of grenade size bomblets over a sizeable area and 20mm cannon fire. The Special Forces team that went up to the OP and mopped up that day told us that the entire top of the hill had been literally powdered into ankle deep fine dust. They did find one enemy soldier left alive but catatonic in the bottom of a bunker. The Special Forces decided that they probably couldnít hold that OP. Since choppers supplied us anyway, they conceded it to the enemy and pulled back from the OP.

 For the next day and half, 3 or 4 times a day we went through the same routine. On the morning of the second day, a few rounds struck inside our battery area, one blowing down the sandbag wall over the entrance to the FDC. The wall performed its duty though as no one was injured inside. This event jogged my memory on the crater analysis training I had had at OCS. I got out my little red field manual and after some examination of craters came to the conclusion they came from a 75-80mm weapon. I was also able to determine a pretty good direction of fire from the shape of the crater. I went into FDC and insisted that they plot several targets along this azimuth out to the effective ranges of all enemy weapons up to about 80mm. I also put it out to all the crews that we all needed to keep an eye on the mountains in hopes of spotting guns flashes. By that time, I had also realized that the NVA almost always fired on us when we had a fire mission. Since we were the eastern most battery in our AO, most of our missions were to the west, south or north with guns pointed away from the mountains. I directed that from then on, only 2 guns were to be used in any fire mission. The other was to remain pointed towards the mountains to the east.

 That afternoon my designs finally paid off. We had just finished a fire mission to the south and I was in a gun pit talking with a crew chief when incoming started screaming in again. As I headed towards the XO post, someone yelled at me that he saw a gun flash. A savvy crew chief had posted a lookout on the top of their bunker, a gangly African-American kid. He pointed for me when I yelled over the incoming, "Where"? As I looked in the direction he was pointing, I saw the gun flash myself. I hit the deck until the round impacted and jumped up. At that point, I realized the rounds were walking across the camp in our direction and also that everyone else except the lookout had disappeared underground. As the lookout ran by headed for his bunker, I told him to give me a hand and he followed me over to the gun pointed at the mountains.

We grabbed the gun trails and swung the gun about 30 degrees in order to get it on line with where the fire was coming from. We also kept one eye on the mountain and hit the deck whenever a round was fired. I had decided it was probably a 75mm recoilless rifle by that time as it made a large flash and seemed to be a flat shooter. Once we had the gun lined up, we ran around to the front of the gun to the jack and started pumping it down furiously. When the next round flashed off the mountain, we hit the deck again. This time however, the round impacted on the parapet wall of the gun next to us and shook us up pretty good. As I jumped up in the dusk and looked over at my partner, his eyes grew so big it seemed that they would pop out of his head at any moment. Without a word, he headed for his bunker as fast and low as I had ever seen any human being move. I didnít try to stop him as what he was doing made a whole lot of sense to me at the time, too. However, I had gotten just angry enough by this time that my desire to fire back overcame what little common sense I had. I returned to the pumping the hydraulic jack myself, determined to get the gun in action.

 Luckily for me, the crew chief of the gun I was working on could see me from his bunker. He decided to take pity on me or more likely came out to keep the cherry LT from screwing up his gun. What I knew was that a few moments later, the crew chief and a crewman arrived and I was really glad to see them. The chief yelled at me forget about the jack as we could shoot right off it, not something that I had been taught in school. As an enlisted man, I had learned time and again that non-commissioned officers (NCOís) really ran the Army. I therefore followed his directions and moved to the gun sight to get the gun targeted. When I reached the sight, he again yelled above the noise that the other crewman was his gunner and would handle the sight. He told me to get the powder charge as he worked furiously to get the firing mechanism out of the breech and primered. Despite this demotion, I dived into the powder pit and started looked around for "green bag" (a low power powder) per my schooling. Unable to find any loose, I began tearing at a canister to get it open and at the powder within.

 By this time, the crew chiefís bellows had gotten another crewman to come out of the bunker. He was a short Hispanic guy who was very pale and shaking uncontrollably. In spite of this, he forced himself to do his job, which takes a whole lot more courage than someone who is unafraid. He grabbed some white bag (high power) powder and when I asked why, he managed to get it out that they had already "fired in" the mountainside with the white bag. He also said that we needed a projo. Another demotion, but I ran over to the several rounds I had seen fused up to the rear of the gun. By this time 2 or 3 more rounds had walked across the camp and away from us. We could now see that the recoilless crew was going after a Chinook helicopter that was slinging in a pallet of 155 projos on the East Side of the camp. We stopped hitting the deck when they fired and were able work much faster.

 When I reached the projos, I realized that they were all smoke high-streamers and white phosphorus (willi-peter or WP) rounds which we usually used for first rounds only. I ran over to the projo pit and grabbed an high explosive (HE) round as I wanted to put some serious hurt out there and I thought HE was the best way to do that. The HE was not fused so I started tearing at the fuse cans looking for a quick fuse. When the crew chief saw what I was doing, he yelled at me to bring the willi-pete round, it was ready to go. I didnít question that one either and with my adrenaline working easily put the 100 lb. projo in the breech. I then seated it home with the two-man rammer myself. The crew chief slammed the breech shut, inserted the firing mechanism, and after a quick check with the gunner, fired the round. As I watched the round fly towards the target, the recoilless fired a round an instant before our willie-peter impacted. I donít want to even think about what happened to enemy gun crew as white phosphorous is a substance that burns without oxygen. If our round didnít land right on them, it was awfully close. I do know they didnít fire again.

 As I grabbed the last fused willie-peter round, I saw another crewman had arrived and was working on fusing up HE rounds. When I arrived at the breech with the projo this time, the crew chief told me to just throw this one into the breech as hard as I could and if I did it right the projo would seat well enough to fire sans the rammer. Thus my introduction to fine art of "throwing" 155 projos. We proceeded to "light up" the mountain sides as fast as we could load and fire, about once every 20-30 sec. The crew chief let me continue the loading chores as he had finally found something I did to his satisfaction, hump and the throw projos. When the FDC ordered us to cease fire, a few minutes later we had fired 19 rounds. I was exhausted but glad my determination to fire back had paid off as we had clearly silenced the enemy gun. I was also glad to be alive and in one piece and felt a strong closeness to the men who had helped, even the one who had done the wise thing and gotten underground.

 From that point on, it became a fact that if you fired at Tien Phouc, we fired back with our 155s. The gun crews raced to be the first ones to get rounds up on the mountain. Even FDC got with the program and gave us some good grids to fire at based on NVA indirect weapons ranges from S-2 and most likely firing locations from a map analysis as I had earlier asked for. That was the last time we received any direct fire off the mountainside, however, we were still receiving indirect fire at irregular intervals. Later on, the receipt of a dud round and a little amateur investigation proved that the NVA were using old 75mm pack howitzers, most likely captured from the French and US in origin. .

  The next day, our battalion commander flew in from Chu Lai. I had met him and even had a few drinks with him in the battalion O-club when I served in the battalion FDC prior to this assignment as XO. He had come to check things out and tell me that division had decided to abandon the new firebase. They were moving the other platoon of guns back to Tien Phouc in a few days. When that happened, I was to be re-assigned as the liaison with the Special Forces team there at the camp. I wasnít sure what that meant but I suddenly realized how close I had become with the gun crews especially the one and its crew chief. I now knew that I would have to leave that behind and it hurt more than I had expected. Even though it didnít make much sense, I felt some animosity towards the colonel over it.

 I shortly got a little payback for my misdirected animosity as we began to receive incoming again in the middle of our conversation. As the gun crews hustled to get rounds up on the mountain, the colonel scrambled into a powder pit that happened to be the closest cover near us at that time. The crews and myself had learned by this time how to determine the proximity of incoming rounds just by their sound. These rounds were hitting well away from us so we just ignored them and went about our jobs. The colonel peered out of the powder pit at us with some amazement. I coolly mentioned that perhaps he should move to a crew bunker, as the powder pit probably wasnít that safe a place to be right then. As my words struck home, I could see on his face first the realization of the danger he had placed himself in and then the embarrassment as he watched us go about the job of firing our guns in such a matter of fact way. He crawled out of the pit and stood with us a little shaky at first but quickly recovering his composure. I somehow felt much better about things after that in spite of the childishness of it.

 After we had given up the strong point to the east and were cut off by ground, the Special Forces had been warning us that we would be hit every night. The Special Forces had armed and trained the villagers called a civilian irregular defense group or CIDG that defended the perimeter. We thought that if we were hit real hard, they would probably bug out. The Special Forces didnít do much to alleviate this concern, especially after what had happened up on the eastern OP and the 3 US MIA. If that had happened, we would have been in big trouble. The campís defenses had been designed around the Special Forces compound and the battery had been placed there afterwards. As far as I knew, we relied entirely on the CIDG perimeter and had no plans whatsoever for our own defense, in retrospect, not too smart. The best we did was to lower our tubes and keep the beehive rounds (special anti-personnel rounds with thousands of tiny arrows called fleshettes) ready to go at night. This situation made for some long, nervous nights.

 Fortunately for us, the NVA were so confident that had us, they made a huge mistake. They decided to hit us in broad daylight. Prior to hitting the main camp, they advanced on our remaining strong point OP to the west late the next morning in regimental force. They used the main trail out of the mountains that our OP overlooked as their main avenue of advance. This trail ran out of a mountain valley facing towards the south so that it was entirely in defilade from our guns. However, since our guns were howitzers, they had what is called a high angle capability. This meant that we could elevate the tubes to such high angles that the rounds would actually begin moving in back towards the guns. This allowed them to hit most reverse slopes and into valleys that were shielded from direct fire (in defilade). The NVA commander either didnít know about this or had terribly underestimated our capability and firepower.

 Another lucky turn of events was that our battery commander for some reason was at the strong point when they started their main advance. He called in a fire mission to the FDC from the OP. We quickly cranked our guns up realizing that this was it and proceeded to rain steel on the enemy's heads. According to the captain, the valley was very narrow and long and the walls steep. When the rounds started falling, the NVA had only two choices forward or back. At first, they tried advance but in such a confined space our fires created complete havoc, death, and destruction. When they began to withdraw as fast as they could our CO directed our fires so that they "walked" along with them. We hurt them so bad on that day, they completely withdrew their remaining forces and never did hit the camp. In spite of our lack of experience, we surely earned Napoleonís title for the artillery, king of the battlefield, on that day.

 The next day, the former XO (a ring knocker, a loving term used by reserve officers referring to our brethren from West Point) and the other guns were air lifted back in to the camp. I was assigned to the Special Forces for a few days until they finally became convinced that we really had kicked the NVA out of the area. Then I moved on to liaison briefly with a visiting brigade of 101st Airborne and finally spent the majority of my remaining 13mos in country with the 1/1 Armored Cavalry Regiment of Dragoons. During the course of my tour as liaison for the CAV, the crew chief who had come to my rescue looked me up on a couple of occasions in Chu Lai. We sat around and had a few beers and reminisced about our short time at TP. He told how the battery commander had received a Bronze Star for calling in the fire mission that saved the camp but that the gun crews hadnít even gotten an atta-boy. When one of them complained about it, they were curtly told they had just been doing their jobs. We commiserated together about the fÖ. Army and its politics. Time has cost me that crew chiefís name and face, but I will never forget the experiences or close comradeship we shared.

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