“The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies” – J.F.C. Fuller
I was a Spec/5 noncom Radar Crew Chief, a rank that no longer exists, in a US Army field artillery radar unit in Vietnam. Equipped with the AN/MPQ-4A counter-mortar radar, the 255th Radar Detachment was part of 1st Field Forces.
Our mission was to locate mortars and rockets shooting at us for retaliative counter-battery fire missions. The radar set ranged 15 clicks (km, 9 miles) but could scan only 440 mils, about 25 degrees.
This might have worked where a ‘front’ position obtained, but surrounded 360 degrees by VC (Viet Cong), it made finding the enemy guns or rockets unlikely because the scan was too narrow.
In my 11 months in-country I never spotted a mortar or rocket round on the scope, enemy or friendly. Basically an exercise in futility.
The AN/MPQ-4A was pretty big, requiring a large tow van (the ‘camper’) to tow; a 2 1/2 ton truck was also needed to tow the generator, which burned MOGAS (gasoline, petrol).
The one night in 1971 when the VC seriously shelled our compound I had disabled our generator by accidentally filling it with diesel fuel. By this act of stupidity I was almost awarded the bronze star.
Firebase Song Mao was located north of Route 1 approximately 56 km northeast of Phan Thiết and 67 km southwest of Phan Rang. It was the typical red dirt bump bulldozed into berms and bunkers, with sandbagged hootches, somehow always dusty and muddy at the same time. You got there via helicopter or heavily armed convoy even when the war was ending and units being sent home.
Convoying was a hoot, sort of like Mad Max. A convoy consisted of towed and SP (self propelled) guns, M42 Dusters, trucks, tanks, M113 APCs , (Armored Personnel Carrier), jeeps, fuel tankers, ect., all heavily armed, never stopping and pounding down Hwy 1 like hell. Ever tried to pee off the tailgate of a fast moving army truck?
The theory was that if attacked you turned and charged the enemy since the VC tactic was to rocket the 1st and last vehicle, trapping the rest in a registered killing zone. Though it made some sense I’m glad I never had to try it.
Living in hootches and bunkers and burning your shit with diesel fuel was not that bad, like camping out for a year while being occasionally shot at. It was dirty but we had cold showers and I took one every morning.
Flak jacket, steel pot helmet and M16 were required for chow call which could be bad, leaning on hot dogs, burgers, grill your own meat (water buffalo?), beans, pasta with ketchup, over-peppered soup, shit on a shingle and of course rice. The cook was often alcoholic, rampant in the hard drinking military culture. Where he wasn’t a drunk the chow was usually better and we soon lost him to the officers.
The army tries to keep you busy so there was always vehicle, radar and generator maintenance, weapons cleaning, fetching of ammo and supplies, bunker improvement, guard duty, the never ending filling of sandbags and, the point of the whole thing, a night shift at the radar scope, junky eyes straining to stay awake.
But by then the war was old and life could be easy, if uneasy, when there was no action. Mama-sans from the ville would do our laundry and tailor our clothes and clean the hootches, though one destroyed our fridge defrosting it with a bayonet.
Some mama-sans would fuck you for some additional MPC (Military Payment Currency) but then they got spoiled and didn’t clean so well-better to go to the whore houses or massage parlor/steambaths (steam-and-cream) in the ville.
Morale was fairly bad too and nobody wanted to be the last soldier killed in the war. CS gas grenades were thrown in the hootches of unpopular officers or NCOs. Crowds of us gathered in the met balloon inflation hanger to smoke dubies, ‘shotgun’ dope smoke through M79 ‘blooper’ grenade launcher barrels, and drink warm beer, the only booze allowed enlisted men. Our kindly old (maybe 40?) warrant officer didn’t care about haircuts and we were not STRAC troopers.
There was other dope than cannabis in Nam too, vials of something or other was sold, didn’t try that. There were also powerful Bồng Sơn bombers and O-Jays, which were opium joints, strong pot dipped in opium.
I smoked an O-Jay once and then went out on the berm to watch the ‘mad minute’, the fun weapons test where full auto fire is opened by all small arms at a random hour to keep any Charlies on their toes. Like they say, it looked like you could walk on the tracers. It was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw.
There was lots of skag or heroin too, sold for $2 MPC. It was very pure, white and powerful. I never injected it, or anything else, but we snorted lots of it and smoked it in Marlboros too, a bitter disgusting taste.
After initial nausea, the effect was a dreamy sleepy daze with no worries. It was perfect for Vietnam. Unless of course Sir Victor Charles attacked while you were in dreamland.
Junk also constipates and addicts you. I remember one buddy of mine with a blissful fixed smile on his face as he nodded off into his tray of C-rats ham-and-motherfuckers (lima beans). But getting off junk was actually easy since everybody got piss-tested before he could DEROS to the world and nobody wanted to spend any more time in Vietnam.
In Basic Training at Fort Polk I fired Sharpshooter with the M14 rifle, between lowly Marksman and Expert. The old weapons fired 7.62mm NATO full power rounds out of worn barrels without a trace of parkerizing left after so much trainee abuse; we often showered with the plastic stocked M14s to clean them after field manuevers.
I felt proud, though I did know some tricks, like aiming rather low so that if you miss then the rock and debris ricochets knock down the man-shaped target. This probably would also work in combat. I fired Expert with the little easy-shooting M16.
In Nam our base had M60 machine guns, gas operated and dirty to shoot; and Browning M2HB .50 cal ‘ma deuce’ machine guns which were a joy to fire with clean recoil operation, good sights, inherent accuracy, devastating power and long range. On the shooting range I remember shooting OVER a range of hills in the distance. These guns gave me a sense of security.
We had weird leftover shit too that we had not gotten around yet to giving to the ARVNs (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) or the Marines, things like M1 carbines and a M3A1 .45 ACP caliber ‘Grease Gun’. They issued us boxes of grenades too but those never gave me a happy feeling.
And Claymore anti-personnel mines, a heavy, curved olive drab plate filled with C4 plastic explosive and hundreds of ball bearings. To help us simple soldiers it was stamped on the curved side: THIS SIDE TOWARD ENEMY. The effect was of a giant shotgun filled with buckshot.
I shot the Light Antitank Weapon (LAW) rocket grenade twice at Ft. Sill managing to hit the derelict Patton tank both times, but I don’t remember if the 255th detachment had them or not. The violence of rockets and grenades and mortar bombs is shocking in the gut and can never be adequately depicted in movies, not even with stereo surround-sound.
Pistol, Caliber .45, Automatic, M1911A: Image Via Wikipedia
We were all issued M16s and I bought myself a stolen black market .45 ACP US Army Colt 1911A1, the handgun all riotous ‘murrican gun lovers are supposed to worship, the original horse killer. It was typical of the worn out Colts from WWII, it rattled and you could see daylight around the slide. Rabbits would panic at night in the razor wire, running back and forth just like a shooting gallery. I never hit a single one. Before I left Vietnam it was, in turn, stolen from me.
I think our personal weapons served mostly to reassure us and give us something to do. I know I stayed down in my sandbagged fighting position with overhead cover, stuck the M16 over the revetment and fired blindly at absolutely nothing the few times we took fire. The blasts were probably from mortars or 122 mm rockets some clicks away and there was no chance my tiny 5.56 mm bullets would hit a VC. But it made me feel better to shoot back.
Guess it would have been different if Charlie’s shelling had been followed by ground assault. In that case all us semi-REMF support troops would be blasted out of our holes by naked little guys with satchel charges. They’d police up the wounded with AK-47s if time permitted. We’d go home in a body bag with cotton stuffed up our ass.
It opens your eyes when you see a hunk of steel come whirring out of the sky and smash into the ground some meters away. It makes your neck get short in a hurry as you attempt to hide under your helmet. But no fire base in Nam was ever over-run. Artillery, King of Battle.
There was racial tension too, whites and blacks staying largely separate, with friction at the shops and alleys of the ville. Black groups would chant “Blackstone Rangers, Blackstone Rangers” while dapping (hand jiving) each other endlessly.
Vietnamese boy gangs were relentless and could break your head, knife or shoot you. However there was no violence when I was there, probably because all sides in town were heavily armed and if the shit went down it would be carnage.
There was suspicion that the Vietnamese were working both sides because lots of them were, they’d been at war for generations and were survivors.
And we had no clue who was friend or who was secret VC, always rumors of the camp barber being caught pacing out the compound to register it for attack, of mama-sans not showing up for work when attacks happened. I saw their houses had dugouts in the floors for shelter. They’d known war a long time.
Like the larger societies, the armies were racist. We called both enemy VC and our purported allies the ARVNs (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), dinks, gooks or slopes, the women were LBFM (Little Brown Fucking Machines). In turn the VC, NVA and our ARVN troops abused the hated minority tribes of the Central Highlands, the Montagnard (Degar) people, who the Vietnamese called moi, meaning “savages”.
Racism in war makes killing easier. In WWII the war against Japan was more like extermination than in the war in Europe and Africa, both because of the Japanese refusal to surrender and our view of them as vermin.
When both our Staff Sargent and our Warrant Officer CO were away from Song Mao it was Spec/5 Tod’s turn to lead the outfit. My NCO leadership style was one of extreme diffidence, giving orders like “anybody want to go out to airstrip with me to get the MOGAS?” Somebody helped me with the barrel but I guess neither of us checked the stencil on top because somehow I picked up diesel fuel which killed the generator that night.
We assumed the usual generator breakdown instead of wrong fuel and called in inoperative radar on the comm net. We went to attempted flash location. This consisted of me climbing up the OP (observation post) tower with binoculars to locate muzzle flashes. If spotted, we’d call the flash location to FDC (fire direction center) by telephone so the guns could shoot back. In theory.
In practice as soon as things started blowing up I ran out of our bunker, straight up the tower, and then right back down again from the tower and into my fighting position when I saw the tower wall and telephone had been blown up real good by an RPG 7 rocket. So in this case the VC were pretty close to us.
My unit thought I had been blown up with the OP. They ran to fighting positions while explosions went off all around us but nothing hit us. Explosions went on all night long but we soon realized we were not really the primary target of the strike.
So I got some premature kudos for surviving before we tried to fix the generator and found diesel fuel in the tank. Oops. Nobody mentioned the little MOGAS/diesel mix-up to the CO when he got back so he praised the hell out of me for bravery and initiative during the shelling while I squirmed.
Write yourself up for a Bronze Star, he said, I’ll sign for it. No thanks sir, it was nothing, really. I guess nobody ratted me out because nothing was said, after we dumped the bad fuel and reported that we’d fixed the generator ourselves.
The shelling was a diversion for the successful bombardment and destruction of an ammo dump which blew up all night long, spoiling any fireworks display for me for life. Burned mortar rounds and rocket tubes were littered all around but I never heard if anybody was hurt or killed. No news reports in war, just rumors.
At Song Mao the only damage was holes in the balloon shed and our destroyed OP sandbag wall-and the phone. Probably a dozen rounds were shot at us for little damage. The rest of the night a Spooky gunship orbited, stitching beautiful tracer ribbons like glowing Mardi Gras beads at suspected enemy locations with the sound of cloth ripping.
Since I missed the Bronze Star it seems I should have gotten a VC medal, Accidental Hero of the Socialist Movement or something, to go with my US National Defence Medal (Fire Guard Medal) and my Vietnam Service Medal (former member of youths-in-Asia). We’re not all heroes but we’re all decorated. This is how John McCain is an Ace in the Vietnamese People’s Army Air Force because he downed so many US Navy jets.
So People’s Army of Vietnam, let’s be fair, I did my bit of addled sabotage for the People and the Party. When do I get my gong?
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