Semi-REMF Stories, Americal 69-70
By Dave Nisse
Charlie’s Hawk Hill Send-off
I had come to South Vietnam as a senior artillery (arty) first lieutenant, which meant three months into my tour I would be promoted to captain. I later determined that this plus a commission via officers candidate school (OCS) virtually guaranteed that I would be assigned as a liaison officer to some line unit. The prime slots for company grade arty officers in the batteries were pretty much reserved for regular army career officers from West Point or the military institutes such as VMI. To be completely fair about it, serious go-getters from ROTC or OCS were occasionally granted regular army commissions upon request. After brief stints at a wide variety of temporary jobs, I was assigned as the artillery liaison officer to the 1st Squadron of the 1st Cavalry (Armored) of the 1st Regiment of Dragoons (1/1 CAV). The "first of the first CAV" operated out of LZ Hawk Hill in southern I Corp in the province of and near the capital city of the same name, Tam Ky. My parent unit was the 3/16 artillery battalion out of LZ Artillery Hill just outside the Chu Lai division headquarters (HQ) of the Americal (23rd Infantry) Division.
The cavalry vehicles, "tracks", were specialized armored personnel carriers (APC) called ACAVs (armored cavalry vehicles) and M-48 medium tanks. An ACAV was an aluminum alloy armored rectangular tracked vehicle capable of 50mph on roads and converted into a fighting weapons platform. Later on, I found out that the aluminum armor actually acted as an effective catalyst, which actually improved the effectiveness of shaped-charge anti-tank weapons. This increased the resultant metal slag splattered around inside the vehicles upon penetration. Modern versions of this vehicle have additional special inserts that help to combat this problem. The alloy was effective against most small arms fire and glancing shots from heavier weapons. The ACAVs had a light steel armored "cupola" containing a .50 caliber machine gun on the top front of the vehicle. An M-60, 7.62 caliber, light machine gun was mounted about halfway down each side of the track. The M-60s were on swivel mounts and could cover about a 120-degree arc on the flanks. The large top hatch was removed in order to make it easy to reach, supply, and fire the weapons from within. The floors were filled with several layers of 50 cal and 7.62 ammunition. The normal crew consisted of 5 men, a driver, track commander (TC) on the fifty, two M-60 gunners, and the ammunition handler who was usually armed with an M-79 grenade launcher and also tasked with covering the rear.
The other primary cavalry tracks were the M-48, 50-ton, medium tanks with a 90mm main gun, 7.62 coaxial mounted machine gun, and .50 cal machine gun mounted next to the commander’s hatch. A troop usually consisted of about 10 ACAVs and 3 tanks but varied greatly depending on battle damage and maintenance with 80 crewman and officers. This was less than the normal complement but we were usually short of both vehicles and men. The amount of fire that a troop of armored cavalry can put out is hard to imagine unless you have experienced it. Additionally, the CAV had APCs configured with 106mm recoilless rifles, very large flame-throwers (Zippos), 82mm mortars, and command & control vehicles in the HQ troop. Another tracked vehicle that CAV used was a giant tank retriever, the M-82 used by the squadron maintenance section. It was lightly weaponed but so big and ugly that it usually ended up being hit the hardest by the enemy in ambushes. They tended to go after the biggest thing first, I guess as a part of the guerrilla strategy of attrition and an assumption that the American commanders would always be in the largest vehicle. We had a hell of a time keeping one operating during the muddy monsoon season for that reason. The squadron contained 4 line troops: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, and the HQ troop for a total of about 400 men commanded by a lieutenant colonel.
In our assignment as arty liaison, we lived, ate, slept, and operated with the CAV and quickly began to feel ourselves as much cavalryman as artillerymen. In order to combat this natural tendency, the artillery frequently required us to return "home" for administrative, logistical, social or any other reason they could dream up. They also usually limited these assignments to 6 months or so. The arty had an unwritten policy of never allowing anyone to transfer to a supported unit. I took over this job from a Hawaiian ROTC captain who after having survived one tour in Vietnam during his active duty tour had the bad luck to be in a reserve unit that was activated and sent to the land of the big green weenie. As you might guess, he was one worn out but relieved guy to have made it through two tours with his body and mind still together. His experience combined with his natural pacific island friendliness made him a real pleasure to be around. He even spared me the usual round of harassment short-timers meted out to new guys about the length of their time to go in country. We had about a 10-day overlap and so he was pretty well able to show me the ropes of the cavalry liaison job. I later learned that this too had been real lucky as the Army generally took an into the fire approach with junior company grade officers. It was sink or swim on the job training (OJT).
An arty liaison officer at that time had four primary duties. First, to act as the primary point of coordination of artillery fires for the supported line battalion, in our case called a squadron. Second, to lead an artillery liaison team whose primary responsibility was the communication and control (clearance) of all friendly artillery fires going into the squadron’s area of operations (AO). The liaison team also had the responsibility of acting as the reconnaissance (recon) teams, more commonly called forward observer (FO) teams, for the headquarters (HQ) troop on the rare occasions they went to the field as a unit. Third, to manage the troop FO teams (4) consisting of a lieutenant FO, recon sergeant, and a radio operator (RTO) for each troop (company-sized unit of about 100 men). Last of all, the arty liaison officer also acted as the squadron commander’s FO.
The liaison section, 4 men and myself consisted of men who had served on FO teams for 6 months and were then rotated in to work in the liaison team for the remainder of their 12-month tours. This provided the liaison section with the experience and empathy necessary to provide the support really needed by the FO teams. More often than not this translated into little things which helped make the FO teams time in the field a little more bearable, such as PX bought condiments or foods to ease the monotony of the field rations (C-Rats). I also used their experience to institute a short training program whereby each new enlisted man assigned to the FO teams learned how to call for and direct fire. I then split up the teams so that each platoon of the CAV had their own FO. This worked much better as the CAV tended to operate with their platoons widely dispersed. CAV platoons were also frequently used as independent mobile fighting forces or for working in conjunction with infantry units of varying size.
After the brief indoctrination by my Hawaiian predecessor, I settled into the task of learning my job. At first, this was mostly about getting to know the people I worked for and those that worked for me. The squadron commander was a tall thin nervous guy Lt. Col. who seemed to spend most of his time at base camp. In the few weeks I worked with the CAV under his command, I interacted with him only once or twice at staff meetings. During that time, I was never asked to accompany him to the field either by helicopter or track. A few weeks later, he was hit and medi-evaced out of country when his command and control (C&C or Charlie Charlie) helicopter tripped a booby trap as they flew low over the wire out of camp according to the official story. Rumor control had it that men disgruntled with him for leading from the rear had fragged him because they were unhappy with how he ran the outfit.
The liaison sergeant was a short-timer of Irish-American descent that had been one of the original architects of our bunker and living quarters. The bunker was an oblong pit sunk into the slope at the center of a heart-shaped hill the firebase was built on. The bunker was built so that one of the lengthwise sides was dug into the side of the hill. The top of the bunker was covered with several layers of sandbags interlaced with heavy corrugated metal and protruded out from the slope of the hill. Just under the roof on the low side was a series of firing ports that ran the length of the bunker and looked out over the both lobes of the heart and the open heavily wired and mined area between them. The firing ports had plywood flaps, which we could lower at night so that we could light the interior without it being visible from outside. The bunker was deep enough so that even the tallest of us could walk upright comfortably. Into the sides of the bunker were built cots that could be folded up against the walls during the day for more elbowroom to move around. On the "low side" of the bunker, the cots also served as a place to stand so that one could reach and fire through the ports at the top. A sturdy set of stairs descended into the earth at one end through a heavily sandbagged doorway. All in all, it was a masterpiece of gopher engineering that short Sgt. was deservedly proud of. It made our life there at Hawk Hill comparatively comfortable and a little safer.
Our primary place of work was the squadron tactical operations center (TOC). It was located in the middle of the hill’s heart lobe to the south of our bunker. It was a few fortified Conexs joined together that contained the squadron’s main command communications, tactical situation displays, unit locations, and latest intelligence information. We were allocated a small area in there to set up our radios and tables so that we could establish and maintain round the clock communications with artillery units. This was needed to control, clear or reject, any friendly fire going into the squadron’s AO. The liaison section men pulled only 8 hrs shifts, in order to try and assure they were always fresh and sharp as a mistake in our critical work could easily cost lives. This was an exception as the "job" in a battle zone was normally considered to be 24 hrs a day.
As I began to spend time with the section, I found the common off duty past time was a regular poker game that our veteran Sgt. orchestrated and usually dominated. Mistakenly thinking I was a fair poker hand, I got my pockets cleaned a couple of time before I realized that everyone in the section just wasn’t in the same league as the Sgt. I also thought that the section probably knew it but that the Sgt. carefully made it a point not to kill his golden geese by completely cleaning them out all the time. Officers, of course, were an exception to this rule and considered fair game by all enlisted mean. After about 10 days, I casually suggested one evening that we play Pinochle having recently brushed up my skills during a brief tour of duty as XO with a 155 battery. Everyone leaped at the idea being tired of losing at poker and even the Sgt. begrudgingly admitted he knew the game. Only one man didn’t know how to play and I agreed to show him how and assured him he could pick up the game quickly. He turned out to be a natural and quickly began to hold his one and in a very short time was one of our better players. Much to everyone’s pleasure, the sarge proved to be only a fair hand at this game and the military pay certificates (MPC) or funny money began to flow the other way for a change. We played double deck for a penny a point and $1 per game to make it "interesting". This seemingly insignificant thing proved to be a small coup for me, as the section shortly began to call me Dai Wei, Vietnamese for captain. This was my first sign that I was beginning to be accepted as their leader and deemed to be all right.
The opposite was true for the FO teams. I only saw them when they came in out of the field for much needed rest and the never-ending maintenance needed to keep the cavalry’s tracked vehicles operating. My interface consisted of occasional and brief radio messages requesting some equipment or supply and small booklets called SOIs. The SOI contained the codes used to manually encrypt sensitive information sent over the radio such as locations or critical status. I didn’t really get to know or work with them till later after we had moved back to Chu Lai a little later.
A few days after the cavalry squadron commander was medi-evaced to Japan, his replacement arrived. He was a short, compact, serious Lieutenant Colonel in his late thirties with crew cut hair, graying on the sides and an extremely military bearing. One look in his eyes and you just knew that he was going to be a hard-charging cavalry commander of the classical mold. At the same time, the command of the division changed and the general decided to re-organize the division in a way that changed our world significantly. Rather than assigning the CAV a fixed AO, our new division commander choose to re-distribute all the ground to his three infantry brigades, the 11th, 196th, and the 198th. The cavalry was to be based at Chu Lai, which was at about the center of the division’s AO on the coast. The CAV would then be assigned roles in direct support of any large infantry operations (ops), if the terrain were suitable. We would also act as the division firefighters, always ready to "scramble" to any area that could be reached by a cavalry unit where there was heavy fighting.
This meant that our LZ, Hawk Hill, would be turned over to the 198th infantry brigade. The plan was to swap places in two phases. First, half of the firebase would change over and then about a week later the other. The transition time was needed because the defensive fortifications for a base defended by tracks was much different than one defended by infantry. The CAV’s main fighting positions were just large pits dug into the ground with a slope at the rear that allowed the tracks to drive down in and out. Essentially, each track itself acted as a bunker with only enough exposed above ground so the weapons were clear to fire. The infantry needed time to change these positions over to bunkers more like our liaison bunker. The CAV would withdraw from one side but remain in place on the other and provide the main security for the base while the infantry built their needed fortifications. When these were complete, the CAV would withdraw from the other side of the base. The infantry would then be able to cover themselves from the completed side while they finished up the other. In order, to minimize our vulnerability during this transition period all details of this plan were supposed to be hush hush.
A few days earlier, a sapper team had unsuccessfully probed the base. Due to shear luck, the sapper team was detected while going through the wire, a rare occurrence. The terrain on the Hawk Hill caused a few of the defensive position to be unsuitable for tracks. In these places, conventional bunkers were placed and manned by headquarters troop personnel. At one of these bunkers, a guard had walked out to the wire relieve himself early one morning and nearly stepped on a sapper coming through the wire. He unloaded his M-16 on the sapper as he backed into the bunker. This alerted the camp, which promptly proceeded to illuminate and kill all the other members of the sapper team crawling through the wire. These bunkers were just about a hundred yards below us defending the flat land in the V of the heart-shaped Hawk Hill. As a result, we were treated to a ringside seat at this deadly show.
The next morning, the remains of the devastated sapper team was laid in a row outside our main gates. I had never seen a dead person and an overwhelming macabre fascination drew me down to look at them. Their youth, diminutive size, and the horrific damage done by our .50 caliber machine guns hit me hard. It was a sorry sight and my first thought was that this didn’t seem to be the way to treat a defeated but obviously very courageous enemy. I was also ill at ease with the laughter, joking, and picture taking that was going on. I looked around and found what appeared to be a veteran trooper from the CAV and asked why the enemy dead was being treated this way. I was told that the practice had several purposes. First, to serve as a object lesson to show what to expect if you attacked us and hopefully discourage VC recruiting (I suspect it probably had just the opposite affect). Second, as it was likely that the sappers were local villagers, it gave the families a chance to retrieve the bodies and give them a decent burial according to their customs. Also, in a grimly practical way it saved us the trouble of having to dispose of them.
Even though I had been fired at and fired back by that time, it had been from a distance. Consequently, I hadn’t really had to confront and deal with the results. At that moment, I realized in full force the harsh reality of war. It wasn't the noble and glorious thing that I had seen in the many WWII era propaganda films I had loved as a kid. Instead, it was a bloody, vicious, inhumane job that I needed to do the best I possibly could. Otherwise, my men or myself might end up like those torn dead soldiers lying in front of us. I also realized that my compassion for them would undoubtedly not survive my first look at US dead. I had to let go of my naïve ideas about right and wrong and begin to focus on the real business of war, killing and survival. I sensed that I had crossed a point of no return here. I quietly turned away back towards the tactical operations center (TOC) with a sick feeling dead in the pit of my stomach. Even though I was still a long way from being a battle-hardened trooper, I realized I was now no longer a "cherry". I still had a lot to learn but I was pretty sure I knew what it was really all about now.
Our liaison section was to remain on Hawk Hill until the last CAV unit pulled out and then we were to pull up stakes and ride along with the CAV convoy to Chu Lai. A battalion of 198th moved into the side of the hill our bunker was on a few days later. They also took over the TOC and we worked along side them during the transition period. I could see that they were a very nervous bunch but decided it was just a natural result of being grunts. There was a 155 battery on Hawk Hill and it was between our bunker and the remaining CAV troop on the other side of the hill. The artillery had a reputation for being one of the best-supplied branches in the Army. Arty supply sergeants were groomed, well rewarded, and took a lot of pride in living up to this reputation. As a result, artillery units were usually prime places to "borrow" (we called it scrounging) equipment from. It had become such a problem for battery there that the CO had a 6-foot high chain link fence built around the battery. This fence also just about cut the camp in half.
Our last night on the hill finally rolled around. We had packed and loaded everything except the bare essentials needed to perform our liaison duties in the TOC. We were ready and anxious to head out for Chu Lai first thing in the morning. As the cavalry headquarters had left with the first contingent, the word was that the remaining CAV unit was running minimum crews on the remaining defensive tracks. Even though the villages were off limits after dark, many troopers were slipping out the wire to say their last good-byes to their lady friends or "babysans". It was a quiet night but then just after midnight, mortars began to fall on the CAV side of the hill. I scrambled out of my rack, jumped into my boots, and locked and loaded my M-16. I checked that the safety was on and looked out the firing ports to make sure that the mortars were falling elsewhere. I also checked that my new liaison Sgt.(the expert poker player had rotated home) had the bunker organized for its defense and then ran low and fast over to the TOC.
On the way, I could hear and caught glimpses of the pitched fire fight on the CAV side of the hill. It was a pandemonium of small arms fire, explosions, the distinctive thumping of fifty cals, shouting, and bunkers and hootchs starting to burn. On entering the TOC, I was greeted with a bedlam of voices as the infantryman tried to get a handle on what was happening. My RTO said to me, "the VC are through the wire and in the CAV raisin hell". An infantry major shouted at us to have the battery put some illumination rounds up over the hill. Just as my operator reached for his radio microphone, we heard a 155 fire and a few seconds later the hill was bathed in the bright flickering light of an illumination round. The battery commander had decided by himself what was needed and gotten a gun in action. I told my operator to contact them anyway and let us know what was happening over there. Over the radio, the battery fire direction center (FDC) told us that there was still a lot firing and that most of the CAV buildings were burning. Also, the other gun crews had taken up defensive positions behind their parapet walls and killed several sappers trying to get through their chain link fence. They also asked if we knew where the mortars had come from so they could return fire, my kind of a battery.
I passed this information on to the infantry and was told that the camp lookout tower had claimed that the mortar fires were coming from a small village, a few hundred meters west of the camp. They gave us some grid coordinates to fire at and we passed them on to the battery. Soon, a couple more 155s in the battery began to fire at the village. The incoming mortar fire stopped and the small arms fire started to slack off a little just when the infantry told us to have the artillery "check fire". A pair of Cobra gunships the grunts had called for had arrived overhead. We passed this on to the battery and they stopped firing. The Cobras worked over the area just outside the perimeter on the CAV side with rockets and 20mm fire. Once they had expended their ordnance, our illumination gun began firing again.
About this time, a Spooky C130 gunship arrived overhead also at the request of the grunts. They had decided to take no chances. I was asked to determine likely avenues of enemy withdrawal and control the Spooky’s fire. I worked up several grids on the roads and trails west of the village as probable withdrawal routes. The infantry gave me the Spooky’s frequency and we contacted the Spooky. After we passed them my grids, I went over to the TOC doorway to watch the fire mission. I had I heard about these gunships and their more famous brethren, Puff, but had never seen them operate before. Soon a low continuous roaring sounded off in the distance and what looked like a bright red rain began to pour from the sky. I knew that even as awesome as that looked it was actually only every fifth round, a tracer, coming from Spooky’s miniguns. That death storm of 7.62 bullets would surely shred anyone caught in it.
As I was watching Spooky, an ACAV rumbled up the road towards the TOC. The TC (tank commander), an older Staff Sgt, yelled down as it slowed to a stop. He said they had a load of wounded troopers on board who needed medical attention and to get dust-offs comings. Infantry medics quickly appeared and began unloading and caring for the wounded. Once they were all unloaded, the TC said that there were a lot more wounded and dead on the CAV side and he needed some help to make another run to go get them. He thought that most of the fighting was over but that there still might be a few VC left to mop up. No one jumped forward to help with this request as with the wounded. After a moment, the weary Sgt. began cursing the grunts and directed his driver to head back to the CAV side. Just then an infantry Major stepped out of the TOC and yelled at him to hold it up a minute. He ordered the TOC defense force to saddle up and help the TC. A small squad of men collected themselves, checked their weapons and ammo, and climbed up on the track. The TC and grunts rumbled off into the night towards the fires burning on the other side of the hill.
By this time most of the firing had died down. I went back inside and completed the fire mission with the Spooky. The dust-offs began to arrive and lift out the wounded to the hospitals in Chu Lai. The firing had all died away and it continued this way until the sky started to lighten in the east. Stories began to filter in from the CAV side of the hill. We had lost several killed in action (KIA) and a few wounded in action (WIA). The entire VC sapper team, about a dozen, was dead as well. In any event, the VC had given a damn good account of themselves. They had destroyed 2 tracks, one with a lucky mortar round through the hatch and the other with several RPG hits. These two tracks were side by side and created a doorway in the defenses through which the entire sapper team had entered the perimeter. Once through the lines, they quickly threw satchel charges in the CAV bunkers and hootches and then headed for the artillery pieces. Unfortunately for them, the hootches and bunkers began burning almost immediately. When they got to the arty chain link fence, they were clearly silhouetted by the fires behind them. The artillerymen crouching behind the gun parapets easily picked them off.
The cavalrymen in bunkers and hootches who had been asleep when the attack began had just started to get up off the floors when the satchel charges started to coming in the doors. Most just bailed out, sans clothes and weapons of any kind. In this chaos and confusion, the surviving track crews on the perimeter couldn’t back fire into the camp for fear of hitting their fellow troopers. A few troopers were able to get out of the bunkers with weapons and together with the artillerymen on the fence were able to eventually dispose of the sapper team. We heard the story about one CAV Lt. in his underwear, who managed to get out of his bunker with his .45 sidearm and a single clip of 7 rounds. He accounted for 3 of the sappers before his clip ran out. He had fired his last rounds at a sapper with an AK47 but missed. When the sapper realized the Lt. was empty, he began to chase the Lt. around the camp bent on some payback for his dead buddies. The Lt. ducked and weaved through the camp and eventually led the sapper around an outhouse. He then simply out ran the sapper around the outhouse, grabbed him from behind, and clubbed him to death with his empty .45. He then collected the sapper's AK and used it to fire on the now fleeing VC who were still remaining. He was awarded a Silver Star for his actions.
The next morning when the sun came up, the new squadron commander arrived and quickly organized the remains of the battered troop. He efficiently pulled us together and got the battered remains of the troop on the road back to Chu Lai. Altogether, it had been an unforgettably bad night. The VC had caught us with our pants down and given us a helluva bloody send off from Hawk Hill.Back