Boots on The Ground And in the Mud
September 11, 2009 By Frank Gannon
In July, in response to a post about Neil Armstrong’s famous first footstep onto the Moon on 20 July 1969, Barbara Nelson posted a comment about a photograph her husband took that same day of a soldier’s boots leaving their own distinctive prints in the mud of Vietnam.
My request for that photograph led to requests for others, and here is the result — a reminder of what those times were like, and an appreciation of those who served there.
Bryant Nelson —Spec 5 (Ret)— is now a photographer and artist. Back in the day, the San Jose native attended San Jose State and volunteered for the army after graduation. He was given artillery training at Fort Sill, OK, before being assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment
I used an Olympus-Pen 1/2 frame 35 mm camera using Kodachrome 2 transparency film. This camera shot 72 shots per roll–very small slides. I gained a strong interest in photography at Fort Sill where a buddy of mine taught me how to develop film and prints in the Army base rec center.
They always say that war is long moments of boredom with a few moments of pure terror. So during those boring times, I wanted to document every day life of soldiers in my battery, essentially to keep myself busy and help the time go by more quickly. I also sent these pictures to Barb, my wife of a few months, and she relished these slides and the commentary I sent on small cassette tapes…..ah for the new technology of today.
The sky above and the mud below: Twenty-three year old Bryant Nelson took this photograph of a fellow 11th Armored Cav soldier in Vietnam on 20 July 1969, the day Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.
Describing this photograph, Nelson writes: “I’m quite sure the photos of the 155mm self-propelled howitzer gun crew riding on the vehicle with rifles is one I took on the same day as the monsoon-soaked trooper and the boots in the mud: July 20, 1969 (same day as Neil Armstrong’s first steps). As you can tell, all soldiers are soaked to the skin. We were road marching from one fire support base to another that day. Tanks could maneuver through this muck.”
Some men of the 11th Armored Cav served as forward observers — going ahead of the troops and sending back coordinates for fire cover. Nelson writes, “A forward observer (FO) would give coordinates as to where to fire, and we would provide blocking fire like a curtain for advancing troops and other support for the protection of villages or to stop supply trucks coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Another striking photograph shows a soldier holding the mutt the men adopted and named FO (Forward Observer).
Better weather led to FO’s better grooming:
Here are some other Vietnam photographs by Bryant Nelson:
Thunder Run: ”We moved around fire support bases based on need as directed by our intelligence and our commanding officers. This was the reason for the road marches like Thunder Run over Song Be bridge. You see Sheridan tanks, M48’s, Armored personnel carriers, and 155 self propelled howitzers. Many of these bridges were built by the Army Corps of Engineers, like erector sets.”
M109 firing at Loc Ninh: “We were on a hill protecting villages in the area north of Saigon. We provided artillery support for ground troops and armored cavalry and ARVN, Army of the Republic of Vietnam. These are 155 mm self-propelled howitzers. Howitzers were mounted in a turret to a tank-like body so they could be driven to different bases, rather than being towed behind a truck. Today a 155 can fire over 20 miles. These particular howitzers are firing a ‘battery six.’ That means that once coordinates have been bracketed on a target from a base piece gun, the battery commander who is riding in a light observation helicopter (LOH) may give the command for all six guns in the battery to fire six rounds apiece (total 36 rounds) on the same spot.
The lighter that works: ”The flamethrowers cleared the jungle around the fire support bases. It cleared our view. Soldiers nicknamed the flame throwers ‘Zippo’s (after the lighter). It was an armored personnel carrier fitted with a nozzle that sprayed napalm (jellied gasoline). If you look closely, you make out a very small low-slung vehicle firing the flame a very far distance.
“The stand down pick-up game took place in a rear area. I don’t know where that would be, perhaps at Blackhorse base camp. (Our regimental shoulder insignia depicted a black stallion on a white and red background.) In the rear area, troopers could get good sleep, regular meals, vehicles maintained and time to play cards, shoot hoops, horseshoes or throw a football. These stand-downs were infrequent and well-deserved. We actually could drink beer (near beer, anyway) and eat a bowl of ice cream flown in by helicopter. ”Donut Dollies” (American Red Cross girls) heloed in to entertain, give us food treats and help build morale.”
I asked Spec 5 (Ret) Nelson to describe his job, and he provided some amusing details:
My job was to work with a Fire Direction Center crew to receive coordinates from the LOHs [light observation helicopters], interpret this data on charts, do calculations on slide rule-like slip sticks and send info to guns on shell type, powder charge, firing tube elevation and azimuth.
At different times, rear area sent out crude FADAC (field artillery digital computers) to do these same calculations.
The FADACs were about 3 ft wide by 1 ft by 2ft; weighed 40 lbs; and had to be powered by a gas power generator. Our crew had contests to see who was faster —slip sticks or computers— and our slip sticks won every time. Needless to say, we dreaded transporting these primitive computers and power supplies with us everywhere, so they “accidentally” got broken and had to be shipped back to the rear area.
And he supplied some reflections on his time in Vietnam:
As a personal note, I believe our military learned some solid lessons from the Vietnam War experience: 1) Don’t institute a draft–use an all volunteer Army. 2) Send combatants out as a unit from bases–and bring them back as a unit. 3) Celebrate and recognize service of our military in combat and peacetime.
A factor that weighed heavily on returning veterans was the poor treatment (or lack of recognition) that many of my fellow soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen received at homecoming. A reunion like the one in Santa Clara for 11th ACR vets has been a cathartic experience for most of us. The key catch phrase the former president, Chuck Schmidt, used to open his sessions was, “Welcome Home!” That’s what we wanted to hear back then and that’s what servicemen and women appreciate today.
The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment —the Blackhorse— is garrisoned at Fort Irwin, CA. It was constituted in 1901 as part of Secretary of War Elihu Root’s army reforms. The Blackhorse arrived in Vietnam in 1966; Vietnam and Cambodia vets are holding their 24th annual reunion this weekend in Santa Clara. The vets’ group established a scholarship fund that has raised almost half a million dollars of college scholarships for members and the children of the unit’s members.
Today’s 11th Armored Cav Regiment has a long and distinguished history as well as an interesting and vital role to play in the army’s readiness for the changed face of modern warfare. The Mojave Desert exercises turn up every so often on TV magazine shows. There is an extensive Wikipedia page, and globalsecurity.org describes this training:
The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment’s unique mission is vital to the readiness of our army. That mission is to provide the US Army the most capable and lethal combined arms opposing force in the world. The 11th ACR is the Army’s premier maneuver unit-the opposing force at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. There, the Blackhorse trains the United States Army-one unit at a time-in the brutally harsh climate of the Mojave Desert. Consequently, the tough and uncompromising standards of the 11th ACR have become the yardstick against which the rest of the Army measures itself.
To train America’s Army for future conflicts, the National Training Center undergoes a monthly transformation into the fictitious country of Mojavia. Krasnovian soldiers in the 11th Division Tactical Group that has invaded the small desert nation. It’s the opposing force’s job to provide a hostile, highly trained force capable of combating more than 70,000 active-duty, National Guard and Reserve soldiers who go through the training rotations each year.
To provide a realistic training environment, Blackhorse soldiers wear a special desert camouflage uniform and operate Sheridan tanks and armored personnel carriers modified to look like Soviet-made equipment. Civilian protesters, terrorists and guerilla forces round out the war game scenario and provide an extra sense of realism for soldiers testing their mettle against the rugged desert terrain.