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The 173rd Airborne's Shoulder Patch
We were more-or-less permanently attached to the 1st Bn 503rd Infantry (Airborne) of the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). Their nickname was "Sky Soldier". They had fought some fierce battles in the Dak To/Ben Het region of Kontum province in the Summer and Fall of 1967, the "Year of the Big Battles". They were tough and experienced.
After Cherry School I had elected to keep the M-16A1 rifle I had been issued as my personal weapon. I was questioned frequently as to why I had it, and not the customary M-1911A1 caliber .45 pistol. Everyone thought I was nuts to want to lug around a rifle when the pistol was more convienient. I had read Street Without Joy, and Fall's chilling accounts of Viet Minh ambushes, and I felt that the rifle gave me a better chance of survival.
Sweep along South China Sea. Lt. Easton in Aussie hat, Mike Fitzpatrick on left.
During August, we made numerous sweeps of the lowlands along the South China Sea. On one of these sweeps we found ourselves on the beach where we stopped for a maintainence break. Most of us went down to the water and waded in. Some adventerous souls blew up their air mattresses and went surfing, more or less, mostly less. I contented myself with taking a bath, only to discover that soap doesn't lather in salt water.
We also spent considerable time in the 506 Valley, a hotbed of VC activity for more than twenty years. Our contact with the enemy here was light but almost on a daily basis. We frequently guarded Rome Plows from the 35th Land Clearing Team as they happily and methodically defoliated the sides of every road in our AO in order to deny cover and concealment to an enemy who used both to conduct devastating ambushes. It was uneventful but pleasant duty, especially since the sun shined brightly in a cloudless azure sky. I discovered pineapple plants, coconut trees (coconuts are encased in big green pods on the tree: they don't look like they do in the supermarket), and saw various species of wildlife, including an ocelot. Vietnam was like Disneyland.
The very first thing I learned upon easing into my new job was that we were always outnumbered. Controling all of Vietnam with five full divisions and a half dozen individual brigades was simply not possible. Therefore we were spread very thin throughout the country, and especially so here in Binh Dinh province.
The second thing I learned was that if a firefight lasted more than about a minute, we were in what was called Deep Serious. The reason was that Charles never attacked with any intensity unless he outnumbered you wildly. Most attacks were hit-and-run, fire a few rockets or mortar rounds, then run away and hide. But if Charles stayed to fight, it was because he thought he could overwhelm you.
My first taste of combat came on 10 August in the 506 valley, named for QL 506, a road that ran up the valley to the northwest. We were moving towards a night defensive position when the log train, consisting of the mess track, a POL tanker, and several other light skin vehicles, was ambushed by a squad of NVA/VC at BR 875-745. The mess truck was hit with a rocket and when we arrived on scene there was scrambled eggs and bacon all over the place.
We immediately set out in pursuit of the attackers, and after a wild ride through the jungle, we came upon them in a clearing. The infantry, firing from their M-113s, killed one NVA, and wounded two others. In the rapidly approaching darkness, the remaining NVA were able to withdraw. The result of the firefight was 1 NVA KIA, 2 NVA WIA, and 5 US WIA, 3 slight, and two requiring a dustoff. Our tanks didn't get off a shot because the grunts were between us and the enemy. I wanted adventure, and I got it.
My second brush with Charles came at 0917 on 24 August 1968. While conducting a sweep of the 506 Valley, north of LZ Uplift and west of Highway 1, in the company of M-113s from the 1st Bn 50th Infantry (Mechanized), our vehicle was destroyed by a 155mm artillery round that had been rigged as a command detonated mine. The round was a dud fired by our artillery and cleverly reused by the NVA/VC to disable our vehicle.
Mike Fitzpatrick gets "treatment" from Medic Fritz Padilla. Trashed tank in background
The explosion was deafening, and the air immediately filled with a choking gray dust. We assumed incorrectly that we had been struck by a rocket and were about to be attacked by infantry. To our relief we realized what had happened and took inventory of the damage. Easton asked our driver Billy Kneipp if he was okay. Billy's response was that he was okay, but what the hell had made that God-awful noise? No one on top was wounded (except for our loader, Mike Fitpatrick, who literally received a scratch and a purple heart) but the tank was totally trashed. The hull had been cracked under the engine compartment and several road wheels had been blown off, as was the right side track. We were abreast of a village at the time, and the village was suspiciously vacant when the mine went off, indicating that the local inhabitants were aware of the ambush. We were not amused by this knowledge.
What was interesting about this was that our tank was not the first vehicle to drive over the mine. Tactical doctrine at the time called for the platoon leader to control the column from the middle, so PSG Al Scavella's tank was on point, followed by SSG Ahlman in C-15. The NVA/VC had figured this out and had detonated the mine under us. Also a dead giveaway that ours was a command vehicle was the twin radio antennas. One radio was kept on our platoon frequency, or "push", while the other radio, or aux receiver, monitored the company frequency. The NVA realized that any vehicle with two antennas was a prize target.
Our battalion maintenance people towed the vehicle behind an M-88 VTR back to LZ Uplift where Billy Kneipp and I stripped it of radios, weapons and ammo, and waited for a replacement vehicle to arrive from Qui Nhon. One night while we were at LZ Uplift I came to understand why I had lost my desire to stay in the Army.
Early in the evening a runner came to where we were camped-out next to the hulk of our vehicle with news that "Military Intelligence" (the ultimate oxymoron) had determined (via ouija board or reading the entrails of a goat) that the firebase would be attacked that night by dope-crazed NVA after a vicious 122mm rocket attack. We were of course stunned and saddened by this news. Our tank was hors d' combat and we had only our personal weapons for defense. Since we had been given absolutely no training as dismounted infantry, we decided to remount the machine guns and fight from the tank, if it came to that.
The order had come down from Heaven (okay, it was from the Battalion Commander) that we would be on 100% alert. This meant no one slept, everyone was awake and on guard. This was, for us, fairly rare, since even in the field, with no protective barb wire, claymores, bunkers, and trip flares to aid us, we normally only maintained a 25% alert (one awake, three asleep). On the worst night of our tour to date, we only maintained 50% alert, so this night was special.
After hours of sitting around in the dark, with only the hourly "mad minute" to relive the boredom, I decided that our position would revert to 33% alert. Even the mad minute had ceased to be entertaining by this point and as each hour went by, the reported attack seemed less and less likely to materialize.
Apparently other positions had adopted the same plan, and apparently the Battalion TOC had gotten word of the relaxed security, because within minutes they issued an order that to this day I do not believe. They decided that the way to keep everyone awake, was to have a police-call of the track park. That's right, everyone lines up shoulder-to-shoulder and we walk across the track park picking up cigarette butts.
Now you've undoubtedly heard the phrase "Spread out! One grenade will get you all!", well if one grenade will do the job, what would a 122mm rocket do to massed personnel with pockets full of cigarette butts? I decided that, beyond a shadow of doubt, the Army was the dumbest, most mean-spirited organization on earth, with the possible exception of the North Korean Communist Party (and there was a raging debate about that), and any ideas I may have had about making a career out of the Army were history.
No attack took place against LZ Uplift that night.
Within two days, a new tank was delivered to LZ Uplift and we busied ourselves with the job of remounting the machine guns, and returning our basic combat load of 90mm ammunition to the tank. We did this as fast as humanly possible since we were going nuts being back among the Base Camp Commandoes at Uplift and were longing to return to the danger, and more relaxed atmosphere of the field.
Our final chore before leaving LZ Uplift was to take the tank to the northwest perimeter of the firebase to boresight and zero the main gun and coax machine gun. This procedure was required to ensure that the guns fired projectiles at the same thing the gun-sights were fixed on. We used a mountain named "Miss America" as the backstop for our rounds and within about an hour both weapons were zeroed and ready for combat.
Without waiting for instructions from anyone, we learned of the location of the rest of our platoon from a spy we had co-opted in the Battalion TOC, and Billy Kneipp immediately drove out the gate and up Highway 1 enroute to the platoon. I had learned after 2 years in the Army that is was easier to get forgiveness than it was to get permission. We found our platoon within an hour and I reported to Lt Easton that he had a new tank. He seemed relieved.
During this period of close cooperation with the infantry of the 1/503rd and the 1/50th Mech, I developed a great deal of respect for, and awe of, the infantrymen. These guys had to hump 60 to 70lb rucksacks, walk up and down steep mountains all day, then dig fighting holes at night. And if they were really unfortunate, they might have to stay awake all night on an ambush patrol, out in Charlie's backyard, then shoulder their rucks and do it all over again when the sun rose.
They rarely could be heard bitching, although they were probably entitled, and they always fought agressively. In every engagment we were in, they always attacked the ambush immediately. In so doing they took frequent casualties. But they always had enough energy to crack a joke and laugh. We tankers were fortunate to serve with the best infantry in the world. I am sure they saved our lives, on more than one occasion.
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