My Vietnam Tour


After I graduated from college in 1967, it was pretty clear that I would be drafted if I did not maintain my student deferment.  I decided that law school would be easier than graduate school in mathematics, and I managed to get into the University of Georgia Law School.  After I finished my first year, however, my draft board said no more student deferment. When I went for my draft physical, one of the doctors encouraged me to apply for an officer candidate program that would only mean a two year commitment, like the draft, if I did not get commissioned.  As a result I sort of volunteered for the draft with the option of going to officer candidate school.  My military career was a bipartisan effort; I was essentially drafted by Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and sent to Vietnam by Richard Nixon in 1969.

I went through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri during the winter of 1968-69.  The majority of trainees in my basic training class were not going to Vietnam; they were in either the National Guard or the Army Reserve and were going back home after their training.  We had a black drill sergeant, and I still had a pretty strong southern accent justifying my Prin nickname of “Mobes” for saying my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, with such a drawl that nobody at Prin could understand it.  Because I had been to college and was going on to OCS (Officer Candidate School), the drill sergeant made me a squad leader.  As the training went on, it turned out that most of the other trainees who were going on into the regular Army and then to Vietnam were black.  The drill sergeant ended up putting all the blacks in my squad, presumably to make us all learn to live with each other.  One man in my squad was from the old Pruitt-Igoe slum housing development in St. Louis.  He periodically threatened to kill me by having an accident at the firing range.  The drill sergeant had us fight each other with pugil sticks, giving him the chance to beat the tar out of me.  But he remained in my squad, and we continued to make it through basic training.  At the end of our training, we made identical scores on our physical training test, and he congratulated me.  I was amazed. It seemed as if we had developed some kind of a bond, thanks largely to our black drill sergeant who was good at his job, and we moved on to the next stage of our Army careers.

I remember flying home to Mobile on leave, probably for Christmas, on the same plane with an old high school classmate who was also in training at Fort Leonard Wood.  He had also finished one year of law school, but was in the National Guard, going back home after training, not to Vietnam.  He went on to become attorney general of Alabama.

From Fort Leonard Wood, I went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for Advanced Individual Training in artillery.  Compared to basic training, AIT was relatively uneventful.  The main thing I remember is that one of the men in our unit was a professional, minor league baseball pitcher, whose main job seemed to be to pitch for the company baseball team and who seemed destined to stay in AIT forever.

From AIT, I moved to artillery officer candidate school at Ft. Sill.  I was serious,       but I was influenced by the general anti-war feeling in the country, so that I was not inclined to put up with a lot of foolishness, and it seemed like there was a lot of foolishness at OCS.  I was pretty constantly in trouble, and the main penalty for being in trouble was being forced to run something they called the JARK.  It consisted of running 4.2 miles up what they said was the highest mountain in Oklahoma (a medium sized hill) with a full pack, combat boots, etc.  However, I did it so often that I could pretty much do it with my eyes closed, and it probably meant that I was in the best physical shape of my life.  In addition, I could knock off  twenty-five or fifty fairly decent pushups several times a day.

About half way through OCS, there was a big celebration of the first Air Force “Ace” who had shot down the requisite number of enemy planes.  It turned out that he had a mustache, which until then had been banned by the military.  Because the publicity said that mustaches would now be allowed, I started growing one.  It took a few days for anybody to notice, but when they did, all hell broke loose.  I did enough pushups and jarks that I could no longer be blasé and my muscles began to notice— not to mention my response to cleaning latrines and doing any other terrible things that the OCS instructors could think of.  But I was still in the program.

That ended, however, when a few weeks before graduation our whole company was restricted to the barracks during a three day weekend on some general principle that we weren’t good enough to deserve any free time.  I decided to take food orders and get everybody burgers and fries from a hamburger stand on base.  I thought that if I did not leave the base, I would get in trouble, but not get thrown out of OCS.  I was wrong.  I got thrown out, along with about ten of my colleagues.  One ended up being one of my best friends.  His offense was to go outside the barracks to speak to his wife in the company parking lot while she sat in the car.  When we started OCS, there were several candidates from Ivy League schools, one from Cal Tech, and my friend who had finished one year of law school, as I had.  I don’t think anyone who had gone to an elite school or who was working on an advanced degree finished OCS.  I think this was at least partly due to the fact that the war was starting to wind down.  When we had signed up for OCS about a year earlier, it had looked like the US would need more officers than it did as graduation approached.  So, the class took a big hit about a week before graduation.  For most of us it was not entirely bad, because we reverted to a two-year service obligation.

Getting kicked out of OCS was a guaranteed ticket to Vietnam.  My law school colleague and I ended up with basically the same orders, sending us to Dong Ha, Vietnam, near the DMZ (demilitarized zone).  We ended up as “chief computers” for two different batteries in the same heavy artillery battalion.  Chief computers were specialist-5 section chiefs who ran the fire direction centers of the artillery units.  The fire direction center talked to the troops in the field and figured up the data to send to the guns to shoot the fire missions requested by the troops in the field, or more often from some intelligence officer back in the rear.  Since artillery usually cannot see what it is shooting at, the fire direction center figures a direction and elevation that the guns apply from a fixed reference point to hit the target.  It is basically an exercise in trigonometry that could be done easily and instantaneously by a calculator or computer today, but was more difficult back then.  We did have computers to figure the data, although we always had to double check them by figuring the data by hand.  The FADAC computers were about the size of a footlocker, ran on several car batteries that had to be charged continually, and displayed their results in old nixie tubes that contained light bulb filaments shaped like numbers.

We arrived from the US at Cam Ranh Bay, where we waited for a plane to Dong Ha.  I remember looking at a map there, where the dot for Dong Ha would not fit entirely in South Vietnam, but jutted across the DMZ into North Vietnam.  This was what the Army called northern I Corps.  From Cam Ranh Bay we flew to Da Nang, where I was amazed at the busiest airport I had ever seen, with fighter jets and transports tailgating each other down the runway.  In the terminal, however, things looked pretty normal.  Everybody was pretty clean and relaxed looking.  One soldier, though, looked like someone out of the old Willie and Joe cartoons from World War II.  He was dirty, his uniform was ragged, and he had a glazed, far-away look in his eye, the only one like that of the hundreds in the airport.  My friend asked him where he was from.  It turned out that he was from the DMZ.  When my friend told him we were going to Dong Ha, he said something like, “I just came from there.  I heard the A-2 base was overrun the night before last. I suppose you are going to replace some of the men who were killed there.”  We were not pleased to be going to where the one man in the airport who looked like he had been in a war had just left

I remember flying into Dong Ha on a C-123 transport plane.  I don’t know whether the pilot was putting us on or not, but he said that they had had a lot of planes blown up on the ground in Dong Ha, so they were not going to stop.  They would land, slow down, lower the back cargo door, and we should grab our stuff and run away from the plane as fast as we could.  We did, and the plane accelerated and took off without turning around.  There we were in the bright sunshine, in the middle of a quiet, green grassy landing strip that could have been a park in any American city.

That night we joined twenty or so other men in a tent waiting for assignment.  There was a lot of drinking and poker playing going on despite some shooting heard outside, until someone came running in to say that we were under mortar attack and  Vietcong were using the lights in our tent as their target.  The next day I was assigned to A battery of the 2/94th Artillery, a heavy artillery battery with eight inch howitzers and 175 mm guns, which was stationed with one brigade of the 101st Division at LZ Sally, near the town of Quang Tri.

It felt pretty good to be stationed with 101st Airborne.  The LZ Sally base camp was on a ridge looking north, and we could often watch the firefights in the valley below.  From our safe distance the tracers were like a fireworks show.  There was another fireworks show every night when another artillery battery would adjust fire for defensive targets on our perimeter using white phosphorous rounds which lit up the sky so that you could see them easily.

During one firefight, the battleship New Jersey was off shore, and she joined us in providing support to the troops in the field.  When we talked to her on the radio, it was like listening to a commercial FM station back in the states, compared to the weak hissing and cackling communications we had with individual forward observers with the infantry.  When it shoots close support for troops, an artillery battery tells them, “Shot” when the guns fire and “Splash” about five seconds before the rounds hit, so that they know to duck to avoid shrapnel from the friendly fire.  When the New Jersey told the troops, “Splash,” everyone in our battery who could, ran outside to try to see the 2,000 pound rounds go off, but we never saw or heard them.

There were some Cobra helicopters stationed on the LZ which would periodically go out and shoot at stuff on our perimeter.  Watching the Cobra miniguns fire a solid stream of tracers was pretty impressive.  Even more impressive was watching the occasional visit of “Spooky” to shoot around the perimeter.  An even bigger column of tracers streamed out of the side of the converted cargo plane.  During these operations there were usually loud speakers broadcasting the “Chieu Hoi” invitation to the enemy to surrender.

After a few months, we parted ways with the 101st and went off on our own to an old Marine fire base called LZ Sharon.  The Vietnamization of the war was starting, so instead of American infantry protecting us we had Vietnamese troops and American air defense artillery.  At LZ Sharon, the Vietnamese troops were draft dodgers who had been caught, but the Vietnamese Army would not give them guns; so they had clubs and knives.  Our air defense artillery was a quad-50 machine gun, four 50-caliber machine guns mounted together on the back of a five-ton truck.  Because it was closer, when it fired the tracers made almost as good a fireworks show as the platoons of infantry back at LZ Sally.  For some reason, probably because as chief computer I was pretty good at calculating how to aim artillery, I had my own eighty-one mm mortar.  However, I only had illumination rounds to support the quad-50; I did not have any high explosive rounds.  Most of our battery’s shooting was done at night.  Usually around 4:00 in the morning everything would quiet down, and the guys on the quad-50 and I would be about the only people awake.  I would shoot some illumination rounds along our perimeter and the quad-50 guys would look for any movement.  If they saw any movement, we would have to clear a whole map “grid square,” a square kilometer, with higher authorities before the quad-50 was allowed to shoot.  It was not exactly rapid response, but perhaps it let the bad guys know, if there were any out there, that somebody was awake.

We were at LZ Sharon during monsoon season, and the moisture meant that the powder in the eight-inch howitzers burned more slowly.  As a result there was usually a huge flash as the projectile left the barrel and the unburned powder hit the air.  In our fire direction center, the explosion would make the dust on the desks and the floor rise up about an inch and then settle back down.  One night, after a particularly loud shot, the plywood walls of the “hooch” where we were working fell off, and we were left standing in the two-by-four framing in the middle of the night.

I think it was while we were at LZ Sharon that I saw Bob Hope’s Christmas show in December 1969.  It was at the Phu Bai combat base near Hue, which was a long drive for us.  I don’t remember much except telling my mother to look for me on TV, sitting about ten rows behind the guy with a monkey on his shoulder.  She always claimed that she saw me, although it was unlikely in that sea of uniforms.  Still, it was very patriotic of Bob Hope to come, and it was encouraging when there was so much opposition to the war to feel that there was someone publicly supporting us.

From LZ Sharon, we moved to Firebase Barbara on a mountaintop west of Quang Tri, close enough to Laos that we could shell the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran along the border.  At Barbara we had two eight-inch howitzers and two 175-mm guns.  The eight -inchers could fire about ten miles, and the 175s about twenty miles, but less accurately.  They gave us pretty long coverage up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail.  We also did more close support of American troops than we had done since we had parted from the 101st  division.  I never knew who we were shooting for, but they sounded like Special Forces, if only because they were so calm in combat.  We would be adjusting fire for them, walking the rounds in closer, and they would very calmly say something like, “They are in the wire, too close for you to shoot at now; you’ll have to wait awhile.”  I only learned from a Time magazine subscription I had that an American Special Forces base at Mai Loc had been overrun.  I recognized the name because it was marked on our charts as a no-fire zone.  I wondered why we had not been asked to shoot support for them, but I realized that they were east of us and our battery was designed to shoot west, terraced down the western side of the mountain.  If we had tried to shoot east, we would probably have blown off the top of the mountain.  Somebody on the internet says that former Secretary of Veterans Affairs General Eric Shinseki (then Captain Shinseki) was sent to relieve Mai Loc, but obviously didn’t make it in time.

One night we received a warning from our battalion headquarters back in Dong Ha that intelligence (probably infra-red sensors) showed a large group of enemy soldiers assembling at the bottom of our mountain.  At Barbara, we had swapped our old anti-aircraft quad-50 weapon at Sharon for a pair of “dusters,” old anti-aircraft tracked vehicles that fired twin forty-mm cannons, again a steady stream of tracers.  Because these anti-aircraft artillery units were almost always stationed in the “boonies” in somewhat dangerous locations, they had a reputation as “space cadets,” who didn’t pay much attention to doing stuff by the book.  They were our main defense, although in theory we also had Vietnamese infantry to defend us.  After the attack warning, our battalion supply officer in Dong Ha came on the radio to tell us not to give any gasoline to the dusters.  We had gasoline to run our fire direction center generators.  He said it was too difficult to resupply us, and the dusters were notorious for not maintaining their supplies.  However, we decided that if the dusters were our main line of defense, we were going to give them all the gas they needed.  The dusters blew away a grid square (a square kilometer) or more where the intelligence said the enemy was forming, and no attack occurred.  We never knew whether we had averted an attack or the intelligence had just picked up a herd of deer grazing at the bottom of the mountain.  I think Barbara is the only place I remember seeing an air strike by Phantom jets.  They bombed one of the mountains nearby, but we never knew why.

On April 29, 1970, while we were firing at something on the Ho Chi Minh trail, the breech blew out of one of the 175-mm guns, killing two of the crew and wounding several others.  The names of those who died, Paul Kosanke and Willie Austin, are listed on the wall of the Vietnam memorial.

A more pleasant memory was when a helicopter flew out a huge bladder of water, which it tried to drop on the mess hall, a bunker.  He dropped it from too high up.  It bounced off the roof of the mess hall and rolled down the mountain.  Later, a flatbed truck made it all the way to the base along the dangerous, often-mined road back to the coast, carrying a new “tube” (barrel) for one of the 175-mm guns.  He was almost at the top of the steep, winding road up the mountain, when the tube began to slip off the back of the truck, and it too rolled down the mountain.  Since it weighed several tons, it’s probably still there.

From Firebase Barbara we went back near Dong Ha, to Charlie-1, one of the bases along the DMZ.  It was in theory the safest of these bases because it was the southern-most and eastern-most of this line.  Those closest to the DMZ were labeled A, as in A-1, A-2, etc.  The next line were B bases, and the third and last line were the C bases.  The numbering started from the east, near the coast with 1, and went up as you went west.  Presumably Khe Sanh would have been the western anchor of this line of bases.

At Charlie-1 we did more shooting during the daytime.  Often an Air Force forward air controller would fly up and down the DMZ in a small plane like a Cessna.  If he found something big, he would call in an air strike, but if he found something small he would call us.  Often he would call a fire mission on “footprints in the sand.”  We would start shooting where he said the footprints disappeared, and usually someone would emerge running back toward North Vietnam because they knew that we were forbidden to shoot into North Vietnam.  We would try to get him before he could get back to the river dividing the north from the south.

At least once, maybe more times, the Air Force would fly what we called an Arc Light mission.  A fleet of B-52s would fly over the DMZ and carpet bomb it.  The rumble and shaking was like an earthquake. We could see many vapor trails in the sky, but I don’t remember their being challenged by the North Vietnamese.

As I neared the end of my two year hitch, the Army offered a deal to let people out a few weeks early to go to school.  I needed to leave a few weeks early to make it to the first day of law school.  I wrote to both the University of Georgia, where I had finished my first year, and the University of Alabama, where I was a state resident.  For some reason, Alabama replied quickly and said that they would accept me.  I used the Alabama paperwork to get my early release approved.  Just before I left Vietnam, Georgia finally replied that I could return, but by then the paperwork for Alabama was done.  It turned out that my friend from OCS had done the same thing, and we left together for law school in Alabama.

When I had first arrived in Vietnam, the officer in charge of the fire direction center had persuaded me to sign for all of the equipment in the section.  His argument was that if anything went missing, he as an officer would be personally responsible, while I as an enlisted man would not be. He had been a forward observer at Khe Sanh and had a silver star; so I agreed.   The equipment included our generators, computers, radios, an M-60 machine gun, but also an M-577 mobile command post (an armored personnel carrier with a high roof) and a trailer to carry the generators.  On an artillery raid, the trailer axle broke, and I gave it to the motor pool sergeant to repair.  He either buried it or sold it on the black market.  After I had been in law school in Tuscaloosa for a few months, I got a “report of survey” from the Army billing me about $1,000 for the missing trailer.  I went to see an Army lawyer at nearby Ft. McClellan.  He gave me some forms to fill out, and I never had to pay, but the Army had followed me to law school.