TALES FROM THE NAM
The Civil War veteran described being in combat as having been to see the elephant." This came from an old Indian tale about three blind men who went to the zoo to see the elephant. One reached out and caught the elephant's trunk. To him it was plain to see that an elephant was much like a large snake. To the one who grabbed a stout leg it was obvious that an elephant was like a strong tree. The one who reached out and grabbed an ear exclaimed that it was obvious, even to a blind man, that an elephant was like a blanket. The wisdom of what those men were saying, as they described combat, and relativity long before Einstein, took me a long time to understand. I now know that they understood what every combat veteran since Caesar's legions has known. War is an intensely personal experience. What it is depends on where you viewed it from. It is also the most profound human experience of a lifetime, and for many it is the 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol promised us all.
I have been to see the elephant and like all who have seen it I saw it from my own perspective. My job in Viet Nam was unique, one that gave me a perspective on the war that few Americans have ever had. I was a Prisoner of War Interrogator. I served three tours there. The first as an advisor during the very early years 1961-1962, the second during the hell of 1967-1968, and the last from 1970-1971. To me the enemy was not some faceless entity that fired at you from the bush or tried to kill you from a distance with a bullet, a mortar, a rocket, or artillery. To me he was a human being, another soldier, one whom I talked with daily. One whose body I searched for documents. I read the un-mailed letters to family, friends, and lovers found on his body. I searched his wallet and looked at pictures of his loved ones, like ours, far away and missed deeply. Those alive, I came to know them as individuals, and like all other people I have known, some I liked and some I didn't. I spoke their language and knew them as people who weren't all that different from all the rest of the people I knew. I learned something that Kippling knew long before me, a soldier is a soldier in anybody's army! In his Ballad of the East and West he said, For there is neither east nor west, border nor breed nor birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.
I also learned a lot about myself during those years. I learned I was braver than I thought I was, and not as brave as I would have liked to have been. I learned that, contrary to my philosophical beliefs, when your friends' lives are at stake, the end does justify the means. I learned that it was not my country right or wrong, but it was still my country. One that I had sworn an allegiance to and one which, in spite of some personal doubt of the righteousness of this particular venture, I would serve to the best of my ability. Most of all I learned there are indeed many things worse than death.
I've lain on the ground under a rocket attack, a mortar attack, and an an artillery barrage. I've sat in a hole helping to fend off an infantry attack, and known the fear that comes with the call Sappers in the wire." I've looked down the sights of a rifle barrel at another human being and pulled the trigger, and have never touched a weapon since. I have also sat around a bar late at night with friends who shared those experiences with me and lifted a glass to Absent Comrades. I remember the good times as well as the bad and with equal intensity. The experiences related here are for those who will never know either the fear, or joy, that only a soldier can know. Without that experience they will never know the true meaning of the word friend."
Therefore I invite each of you to tell your story, to post it here so that all may know which part of the elephant it was that you have seen. Perhaps, if we get enough of them we will one day publish them as a book.
BLACKHORSE ? SIR? .When I joined the Blackhorse in Vietnam in1970 the patch (left) was quite distinct. It was a black horse reared up on it's hind legs with his, quite prominent... how shall I say, John Thomas, pointing the way.
"Wow," I thought, "This is so cool. We get to wear these?" I really didn't want to be there, but this was way cool. I thought it unlikely at first that the Army would allow an anatomically correct logo, but then these were real men. And, real horses are hung like... well, horses.
I never saw the new version of the Blackhorse (right)
insignia until the day I put on my newly issued
Class-A's and jumped in the back of the that deuce-and- a-half in Dion, headed for Ben Hoa
Airbase, then home.
A VISIT WITH THE CAV
I served with the 31st combat engineering battalion in Vietnam in 1970/71 and pulled duty with the 11th ACR at fire base Ennis, near the Iron Triangle. We (the31st) were clearing the area and building the firebase for the 11th ACR. I remember it all very well.
We were living on the temporary fire base while the regular one was being built. I was a gunner on an APC, pulling security for the base. We got hit pretty hard on one particular evening, lots of mortar and small arms fire, but the ACR impressed the hell out of me. First, they pointed their 105's (or 155's, I'm not sure which) straight in the air and lit the area up like daytime. When things really heated up, your Lt. lowered his cannons and fired H.E. and flechette (sp?) rounds point blank into the woods. (I think my ears are still ringing from that one!) He really saved some lives with that maneuver.
The next day, a Col. from the 11th ARC flew in to survey the damage. I guess he was pretty pleased with the results; he sent me and someone from the ACR back to the rear in his chopper to pick up 10 cases of beer, which he paid for out of his own pocket. Of course, like most of the nice stories from in-country, this one had a lousy ending. When the primary base was complete, we pulled out, along with a couple of the 11th ACR's APC's. We had a friendly race of sorts with each other to see who would get to the dirt road first. (The loser would eat the winners dust, litterally!) The ACR won. We ended up third in line to leave. Unfortunately, the lead APC hit what had to be a 500lb mine buried in the muddy road. The force of the blast picked that track up (which weighed about 17 tons combat ready) and threw it through the air like it was a Tonka truck.
It left a blast crater at least 15
feet across and 6 feet deep. There was about a 4 foot chunk of the left track from the APC
that I don't think was ever found. The 11th ACR lost a good crew that day. Unfortunately,
James Ennis had already died at that firebase a couple of weeks earlier, so the compound
bore his name, not the name of one of your crew. I just got back from my first visit to
the wall a couple of months ago. I found James Ennis's panel and took an etching of his
name home with me. I'm sorry I didn't know the names of the guys on the ACR's APC that got
hit, but the wall does . . . and they're all in good company. You guys did a good job . .
. thanks. Welcome home
In the early morning darkness, sappers of the NVAs
COSVN J-16Armor Office and the NVA 7th Division breached the wire of FSB Buttons. It was a
desperate attempt to overrun Buttons and take
the city of Song Be. The battle raged for more than four hours.
As part of the perimeter defense, I Troop lost one dead and several wounded. I was fortunate--the RPGs that slammed into my track werent labeled KIA, they had Ticket to The World written on them.
The last thing I remember of that predawn darkness was being carried by four men to a medevac chopper. On one corner of my litter was a 1st Cav Division chaplain. I dont remember his face and I didnt know his name. I only knew that he, like the others that night, was there for me.
For twenty three years Ive wondered who they were and have longed to come face to face againto be able to say thanks! to those men and others who made my welfare their concern that night.
But my story has really just begun.
Chapter Two was set in San Antonio in August of 1992. My wife, Florence, and I were there for our first 11th Cav reunion. Shortly after we arrived I was approached by a Blackhorse trooper named Bob Walker. He looked at me with just a shadow of doubt in his eyes and then exclaimed, I remember you! Youre Lieutenant Dodge! I stayed with you when you were brought to the command track after being wounded at Buttons! I never saw so much shrapnel in one leg! And I think I carried you to the medevac chopper when they flew you out, too! Here was my first chance to say thanks!
That meeting in itself was reward enough to have traveled 1000 miles to Reunion VII! But there was more to come.
As Florence perused the tables along one wall of the banquet room, she found a handwritten note that said simply, My name is Chaplain Gene Allen, 1st Cav, FSB Buttons. I did a lot with the 11th when they were attacked outside the berm at Buttons. Call me if you remember.
My heart was in my throat! He had to be the chaplain I remembered! I called him, and we went to dinner (appropriately enough, to a Vietnamese restaurant). After twenty three years, I was face to face again with my second stretcher bearer! But heres the rest of the story--and it involves the incredible circumstances that brought us together again. Gene Allen had retired from the Army in San Antonio. Not Washington or Dallas or San Diego, but San Antonio. Hes now a hospital chaplain and knew nothing of our 11th ACVVC reunion because, you see, while in Vietnam, he wasnt even with the 11th ACR--he was assigned to the 1st Cav. But, by chance he was doing a seminar this particular weekend at our Holiday Inn, and when he saw the Blackhorse banners, he left his hastily written note in our meeting room. My call reached him as he and his wife were packing for a trip to Austin. An hour more and hed have been gone. And, had Florence not been with me I may never have seen Genes note. But, she was. The rest is history. My reunion was complete.
Having just been reunited after twenty three years with two of the men who truly were my tickets to The World, I thought my story must have been the most incredible of the weekend! What I noticed, though, was that everyone I met had a story. They were stories of sadness and brotherhood and friendships rekindled. They were filled with every emotion you can imagine. And each story was just as important as the next.
That was the essence of Reunion VII... that we were together again sharing one of the most significant experiences of our lives.
And it was good.
P.S. Perhaps the men on the remaining corners of my stretcher, as well as others who risked their lives to save mine that night, will read this and call. I dont know who you are, but I do want to tell you thanks!
I had only been in Vietnam two months and had participated in just two small skirmishesno major injuries. As a medic with the 11th Armored Cavalry tank company, I was relieved that my responsibilities consisted mostly of treating toothaches, cuts and burns and various body fungi.
But this was different. Less than a mile from our position a bus carrying more than 70 unarmed Vietnamese civilians had been rocketed by Viet Cong. My tank platoon had been called to provide security and medical help.
My first sight of the total carnage and horror of war literally froze me. Blood everywhere. Bodies everywhere. Screams of pain and terror in a language understandable by everyone. The stench of burning flesh and gunpowder. The smell of fear. The smell of death.
Welcome to the war, Jack.
Thanksgiving Day, 1967, I helped put 29 civilians, mostly women and children, into body bags and lined them along the roadside. The Vietnamese authorities would pick them up later.
That day I helped evacuate more than thirty seriously
wounded civilians. That day I helped bury arms, feet, hands, legs and other unidentifiable
body parts. That day I listened to the cries of children who did not understand what had
happened. And I listened to the cries of mothers who did understand.
November 1991, Shreveport, LA
Today, my in-laws are coming for dinner. I am fortunate to have in-laws such as these. We not only get along together but we actually enjoy each other. I look forward to watching the Dallas Cowboy game with my Texan brother-in-law. I look forward to playing Canasta with my father-in-law as my partner. Later tonight, my family will meet my brothers family at our parents house. My wife (and best friend) of 30 years is busy putting the final touches on a Thanksgiving Day feast. She has worked for three days on her homemade rolls. She doesnt often have the opportunity to make them.
My teenage daughter is in her room talking on the phone and playing her radio too loudly. This is irritating, but this time I let it pass. She doesnt drink, she doesnt smoke, andthank Godshe doesnt do dope. Im happy. I have a lot to be thankful for.
But as I open the drapes and look out the window, I see my neighbors trash. Black bags of leaves and grass are lined along the roadside waiting for pickup. They remind me of body bags lining a Vietnamese roadside and memories of that Thanksgiving Day in 1967 assail me.
After a moment I close the drapes and walk over to hug my wife. She understands. And I am thankful.
Sometime in early to mid 1967, after about 6 weeks of jungle busting along the Cambodian border, the 3rd Squadron road marched back to Xuan Loc, to do their stint at Blackhorse and get some well deserved rest and maintenance. In the late afternoon, we were met by MPs who carefully guided us through Saigon, where people lined the streets and balconies, cheering, giving the peace sign, and in some cases, throwing us cold cans of beer.
As I remember, we were quite well behaved, and only ran over a couple of Renault taxis which had dared to challenge our right of way. There may have been a couple of curbs and street lights that got bumped too, completely by accident, of course. We looked like a scene from a WWII newsreel; tanks devoid of all fenders and sponson boxes, and ACAV's equally beat up and filthy, some with holes from RPG penetrations. Dusty, helmeted faces with bloodshot eyes peered back at the crowd, goggles pulled up on the helmets, Afrika Korp style.
But perhaps the strangest sight was the loot. We had been quite fortunate on this mission, and just about every vehicle carried sacks of VC rice piled high around the turrets and gun shields. Liberated bicycles hung anywhere they would fit, and the sound of enemy pigs could be heard coming from the inside some of the tracks. One tank was even towing a slightly damaged Australian Landrover, the symbolic kangaroo carelessly painted over with black paint, but showing through anyway. The brass must have had a fit.
I cannot remember where the idea for the 4th of July party started. It was probably in the jungle when we captured the VC tax collector with a bag full of MPCs, or it might have been after the Zippo had been brought up again to burn captured rice, when someone might have said that it was such a waste to destroy it all.
It had started among the younger enlisted types, and crept up to the younger officer types. But booze was needed if there was going to be a party. Slowly The Plan started to take shape, over the radio and in personal conversation. We knew that we would be going back to Blackhorse soon, and would probably go through Saigon and then pass right in front of Second Field Forces, home of General Westmoreland and the BIG PX.
We needed a couple of breakdowns right in front of the main gate, and some volunteers, armed with lots of ration cards and MPC money. On a long road march, broken down vehicles were a common sight, waiting for help from a maintenance truck or track. A tank, an ACAV, and a maintenance deuce and a half were chosen for the special mission. A 1LT., one Sgt. E-6 and a Spec 4 were volunteered to be the insertion team, mostly because of their reputations for petty larceny. Ration cards were collected days in advance, money was accumulated and clean fatigues were secured for the 3 man PX assault team. No one over the rank of 1LT. officially knew what was to take place. Operation Whiskey was ready to be activated.
The radios buzzed with coded talk as the convoy came over the bridge out of Saigon, and on to the four lane highway. Just over the bridge, where the road leveled out, a tank lost its right track at about 30 miles and hour and proceeded on a leftward course, across three lanes of highway, through a barbed wire fence, a mine field, a mud field, and ended up against a very recently abandoned ARVN bunker.
The tank commander was laughing so hard when he radioed his plight that he was almost unintelligible. The convoy didn't miss a beat, and kept going. Second Field Forces was reached, and then another tank reported that he was stopping to tighten up an end connector. A few minutes later, an ACAV pulled over because it was overheating. A maintenance vehicle reported that it was pulling over to help them, and then would go back with a couple of VTRs to get the tank in front of the ARVN bunker.
Third squadron pulled into Blackhorse at about dusk. To the surprise of most, we saw doughnut dollies, graded red clay roads, MPs and even wooden buildings (WABTOCS.) Civilization had come to Blackhorse while we were gone.
Although progress is inevitable, it is sometimes sad. There was even an officer's club and an NCO club. Early the next morning, some stragglers arrived, two tanks, an ACAV and a maintenance deuce and a half. They say that the truck appeared to be very heavily loaded and was driven very, very carefully.
The party was held on July 4, 1967 in the tank company motor pool. The Rhesus monkeys screamed their indignation from the trees around the motor pool. Doughnut dollies were invited and came, and were treated with great dignity by all. They even got to go on a tank ride. No MPs were invited.
The party was held jointly by one of the ACAV troops and the tank company. Care was taken to make sure that the perimeter was manned at all times by sober individuals. Troopers raised on farms slaughtered the pigs and we had roast pork Cuban style and barbecued pork, Texas style. A Cajun Spec 4 made dirty rice.
There was salad and ice cream donated by the mess hall. Cold beverages were in abundance, both spirited and not, and were enjoyed by all except for some non-drinkers who chose to smoke odd smelling cigarettes behind the motor pool tent. The party ended at nightfall, and the doughnut dollies were driven back to their secure area in a newly repainted U.S. Army Landrover, escorted by troopers on bikes. The MPs did not interfere.
After all these years, this is still a good
My platoon, the 2d platoon of Troop E, was on perimeter duty at Blackhorse base camp when a strange thing happened. Around 2100 hours one night in November 1966, one of my track commanders called me on the radio and asked me if I heard Vietnamese music playing. I stuck my head out of the hatch and sure enough, I heard music. There were no villages or houses within miles of the southern perimeter. A hundred meters directly to our front was a small stand of rubber trees covering eight or ten acres beyond which were miles of jungle. The sound was loud and clear and apparently coming from a portable radio just out beyond the wire fence. A number of old foxholes we had dug and not filled in dotted the area beyond the concertina. A VC was apparently down in one of the holes playing a radio to harass us, to try to determine our alertness, and to see what kind of reaction he would get. I reported it to Troop headquarters and was directed to fire one weapon to flush out the Viet Cong.
I got on the howitzer battery fire direction radio net and requested a fire mission of illuminating ammunition or aerial flares. They told me they could not authorize the fire mission. My 4.2" mortar track crew, which was under howitzer battery control was listening in. Soon, a heavy weapon fired from inside the base camp followed seconds later by a loud pop high overhead as a flare burst. It lit up the whole area as it floated lazily downward on its parachute. I was puzzled for a moment. The artillery told me they would not fire, then they did. Finally, I realized that my mortar crew had fired for their platoon without permission.
I directed one of my tracks to fire a high explosive round from their M-79 grenade launcher toward the music. There was a pop followed by a wharrf as the round impacted. The music stopped. We all went back to sleep except for one man on each track who manned the fifty caliber machine gun.
Ten minutes later, I had just dozed off when the music started playing again. I directed the track on my right to fire four rounds from their M-79. Again, flares popped overhead as high explosives detonated in the area where the music came from. Smoke and dust obscured the place, and we could not see anyone, but the music had stopped.
A few minutes later, the music started playing again. Now, everyone was awake and baffled. I directed the track on my right to fire more high explosives and the track on the left to fire one of its M-60 machine guns. A stream of red tracers streaked out toward our tormentor and more exploding M-79 rounds pounded his hiding place. I gave the Cease Fire! command. The music had stopped.
Ten minutes later, the music started playing again. Well... enough was enough. I directed the whole platoon to open fire with all weapons. Eight fifty caliber machine guns, eight M-79 grenade launchers, sixteen M-60 machine guns and a few M-16 rifles for good measure, blazed away. Flares were still popping overhead. For five full minutes, there was one solid roar as the platoon shot up the area to our front. The din was deafening. Tracers arced through the night and crisscrossed the ground. High explosives rounds beat upon the area in rapid succession. Smoke and dust shrouded the whole southwest sector of the perimeter. I called a cease fire. With a grin on my face and a feeling of total satisfaction, I said aloud, How do you like that, you Viet Cong SOB? The music had definitely stopped.
Minutes later, the music started playing again as loudly as ever. Damn! I called the platoon on the radio and told them to enjoy the music and go back to sleep. I laid back down on the long seat by the radios and dozed off.
Bruce E. Johnson
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