By Eric Newton
I arrived in the Republic of Vietnam in July of 1968 at the same time Col. George S. Patton took command of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Col. Patton is the son of one of our countries most famous war heroes. I had never heard of the Blackhorse. But, I was glad to know that I was going to an armored unit since I had enlisted to be a tank crewman.
I had been a military brat most of my life. My father was a tanker in the Army before he made the switch to the Air Force. I suppose that is why I signed up to be a tanker. Another reason is that I had a low lottery number, I was not in school and was a breath away from being drafted. But the most compelling reason was the pitch given by the army recruiter which made perfect sense to an eighteen year old. “Vietnam is full of rice paddies, and those tanks weigh about 52 tons. Tanks can’t move in rice paddies and will sink. You’ll go to armor training at Ft. Knox and then probably to Ft. Hood or Germany. Germany, that’s some good duty.” Well, I did get to Germany - immediately after Vietnam. What was more amazing is that I met another Blackhorse trooper from my home town that heard the same story from this recruiter. We made ourselves a promise, we would pay the recruiter a visit if we made it home.
I was very patriotic and related to the first part of the movie “Born on the Fourth of July”, where the young Tom Cruse was playing army with his childhood friends. I did that a lot with the military surplus stuff my dad brought home, helmet liner, web gear and 45 caliber holster. A Daisy lever action BB gun. At age seven, I was a straight shooter. By the time I was twelve, my grandfather had given me a 22 rifle and 410 gauge shotgun. My passion was hunting and shooting. My childhood buddy was so confident, we would entertain the other kids, as he would hold a firewood chip between his fingers and I would send it flying with a BB. It was only natural that I qualified as expert throughout my military weapons training except with the cantankerous caliber 45 pistol which had a mind and direction of its own.
When I reached the Blackhorse Base Camp, I was assigned to 3rd Squadron Headquarters, Transportation. “But I enlisted for tanks,” I told the clerk. “The army needs some truck drivers today and you are it”, he replied without looking up. My protest that I had never driven a truck before fell on deaf ears. I could not believe what I was happening.
After the in-country orientation, I was assigned to drive a fuel truck. Well, anyone that went to Vietnam knows that the rear area guys were threatened with being sent to the field when they screwed up. I sat out to be the best screw up I could be. To demonstrate that I was not worthy to be in the rear. Not wishing to loose a stripe or end up in the stockade required a lot of thought and restraint. As it happened, I could not screw up fast enough to achieve my goal. But that’s another story.
3rd Squadron headquarters was at Long Binh, when I spotted a worn out M-548 that had been towed to the back of the maintenance area. That was a thin skinned truck looking vehicle with no armor, glass windshield, canvas roof and a cal 50 Browning anti aircraft machine-gun ring mount above the cab. And guess what else it had? Full tracks. I asked one of the mechanics what the story was. He said it belonged to Transportation Section. Nobody wanted to be on the crew because it was not armored and the guy on the 50 cal had no protection. Kind of a like sitting on top of a basketball goal in the middle of a firefight. This was my chance to get out to the field. It wasn’t an M-48 tank, but it did have tracks and a 50. I always wondered what the serge thought after I convinced him that I should drive it. After all, I was a tanker, tanks have tracks. Those real truck drivers can’t handle anything with tracks. As if they wanted to.
As soon as the 548 was repaired I was off to the field attached to K-Troop. As we left Blackhorse base camp I fell into the convoy of ACAV’s (Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicles) behind the M-578 which was a tracked wrecker. I have seen several pictures in military history books that look just like this vehicle I followed. Rolls of concertina wire strapped on. It is almost like I was the one who snapped the photo. I seemed to be the only volunteer to man this vehicle so someone was detailed to ride up on the 50 cal. For the next few months that would be the case. Someone different would be detailed to man the 50 cal.
It was the dry season and the convoy kicked up dust as we rolled down the path. I was carefully placing my tracks exactly where those who went before me had made impressions. The consequence of not tracking would be hitting a mine. A piece of real estate was considered safe only after someone had rolled over that spot. But, one half inch either side could prove deadly.
I was carrying a cargo of two 500 gallon rubber fuel bladders and ammo. Fuel bladders - my mind ran images of what the result would be if a well placed rocket propelled grenade were to hit one of those unprotected containers. Would I have time to bale out before the flames reached the crew compartment? Then, once out, would I have had the time and presence of mind to grab my M-16?
After several hours we circled the wagons in a clearing surrounded by thick jungle. All guns aimed out at the tree line. The burnt out remains of a helicopter lay in the perimeter. You wondered the fate of the occupants. There were areas of elephant grass that was about five feet tall. So thick you could be three feet away and not see the other person. The word spread that we were part of a combined operation with other units. The other units completely encircled us and were closing the circle each day. We were the bulls eye, or ground zero. The plan being to close the circle and push the enemy to the center where we would be waiting.
I immediately volunteered to recon the tree line and loaded up some grenades and lots of ammo. Three of us walked out of the perimeter toward the tree line. This was the first jungle I had experienced. It was thick with underbrush and was just like some of the Texas country where I hunted as a kid. It wasn’t at all like the tropical jungle I saw in the Tarzan movies. I flipped the selector switch of my M-16 to full auto as we penetrated the tree line. After about twenty feet we turned to run parallel. We continued to move farther from our point of entry. I hoped our guys on the other side of the perimeter that didn’t see us leave wouldn’t be surprised if they got a glimpse of something moving in the trees and hastily open fire.
I was walking point just as I had played soldier as a child. My finger on the trigger and 18 rounds in the magazine. It was so thick you lost sight of the others if you got a few steps ahead. There was just no way you could move through this stuff quietly. Charles would have to be deaf not to hear us coming. I was beginning to get a little more relaxed. Piece of cake. Nothing out here, just a walk in the woods. Then about four feet to my lower right the brush suddenly moved. I instantly dropped to a crouching position as I swung my barrel and pulled and held the trigger sweeping the brush full auto with half a clip and. It was quiet except for the ringing in my ears. And I listened and watched for more movement. Waiting for all hell to break loose.
Again the thought crossed my mind, Do our guys know we are out here? I looked back to see the other two on the ground and ready. They had not fired and didn’t know why I had. We listened and watched some more. Nothing. I whispered that something moved in the brush and pointed the direction. I slowly stood and began to walk in the direction I had fired while they covered. I searched for a moment. Nothing. It was right next to me when I opened up. Had I imagined it? Could I have missed? We all began to search. Then came a laugh. I turned around to see a huge black crow like bird dangling from the hand of my seasoned comrade. It had long claws like a hawk. I had never seen anything like it. So this was to be my first kill!