3rd platoon D company, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment
I served as a platoon leader with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment May, 1969 to December, 1969. The 11th ACR is known as the Blackhorse regiment. The official motto of the regiment is Allons, but the unofficial and much more commonly cited motto is find the bastards, then pile on. Combat with the the Blackhorse was quite a bit different from the movie depictions of combat in Vietnam which tends to show small infantry formations in light jungle terrain. The Blackhorse was a full armored regiment, the largest armored unit in Vietnam. It consisted of twelve line companies equipped with the medium M48A3 90mm gun tank, the light M551 152mm gun tank, and ACAV's, modified M113 armored personnel carriers with three machine guns, plus an air cav troop equipped with Cobra attack helicopters. Each of the three squadrons had a full battery of self propelled 155mm howitzers in direct support, augmenting the organic M107 4.2" mortar carriers in each troop. For most of 1969 the Blackhorse operated northwest of Saigon near the provincial capital of Quan Loi on the Cambodian border. Much of this area is rolling hill country and rubber plantations, with some jungle on the western side. The entire area was generally passable to tanks for most of the year and most combat occurred between mounted cavalry units and dug in NVA infantry. The basic mission was to act as a screening force preventing the ready flow of men and material from the Cambodian terminus of the Hoi Chi Minh trail to Saigon. The opposing forces were not the lightly armed guerillas popular in Hollywood epics, but consisted of the 7th Division and the 101D regiment of the 1st division of the North Vietnamese Army. These troops were fully equipped with excellent radio communications and a plethora for antitank weapons including rocket propelled grenades, recoilless rifles, mortars, 122mm rockets and excellent Soviet antitank mines. Most of the civilian populations had fled the border area, so most actions involved confrontations between regular army units on an otherwise empty battlefield.
In Vietnam the typical infantry combat in the field consisted of an NVA initiated contact, followed by the the US infantry withdrawing to allow artillery and tactical air power to operating with minimum danger to US forces, followed by an sweep by US infantry through the contested area. The infamous body counts were often interpolated by infantry - "we fired 130 rounds of 155mm against entrenched infantry. Studies show one round in three causes a casuality, so we must have inflicted 42 casualities, although the area is too mangled to find them." These tactics did minimize US causalities, however the NVA and VC soon learned that they could strike with impunity so long as they quickly left the area of the attack before artillery could be called in on their positions. The Blackhorse used somewhat different tactics. With a heavily armored combat vehicle, each of which carried a basic load of ammunition weighing more than one ton and which could move at 30 mph in the rubber, the Blackhorse tactic was to meet any contact with a full assault by all the Blackhorse elements in the area, giving the NVA no time to withdraw to safety. Contacts were frequent in 1969 as the Blackhorse also adopted a goal of remaining in the field at all times. Infantry battalions normally operated in a "two up, one back" schedule with two companies in the field while the third recovered in basecamp, effectively cutting the available force by a third. The Blackhorse tried to keep all four troops of each squadron in the field all the time, returning to a secured area only when absolutely required by critical maintenance. Major vehicle maintenance, including power plant replacements, was performed in defensive positions hurriedly cleared in the jungle. During my eight months in country, I was in Xuan Loc, the Blackhorse basecamp, for four days. Many troopers never saw it at all.
Over the course of 1969 we saw the NVA become much less willing to engage Blackhorse units. The most distinctive combat vehicle in the Blackhorse inventory was the ACAV, a boxey M113 with a round gun shield mounted to protect the track commander's 50 caliber machine gun, and two M60 7.62mm machine guns protected by armor shields on each side of the rear cargo bay. Many times prisoners told us that their orders were "don't fight the vehicles with tubs on top. Wait for others." Their caution may have been justified. In many months in '69 the Blackhorse had more confirmed enemy kills than division sized units operating in the same area. And the Blackhorse paid the price. I recall holding a parade in the field in August '69 to honor three 1/11 troopers who had reached their DEROS date and who were going home. Many troopers didn't make it to DEROS. Infantry call themselves grunts and any one who has ever humped an 80lbs basic load in the field knows one of the reasons why. In '69 Blackhorse troopers called ourselves snuffies, in our case because one moment you are alive and the next after an RPG hits your vehicle or a command detonated goes off under you, you just are not. But grunts and snuffies share the share the important trait that we can take whatever is thrown at us. The following stories were written for the snuffies of D company, 1/11:
In the Spring of '69 I was a newly assigned lieutenant to D company, 1/11 Armored Cavalry Regiment. D company found itself in the never-to-be-repeated situation of actually having five lieutenant's for the three tank platoons. As the junior and very supernumerary officer, I rode as the loader or as a rear deck rifleman on a tank with an experienced platoon leader. This gave me an excellent chance to learn my job in the field without the crushing weigh of being in charge. Unfortunately, I also drew all the assignments none else wanted in the company, like leading night dismounted ambushes, sitting night radio watch and ferrying repaired tanks up from Xuan Loc.
One periodic job no one wanted was currency change officer, so one afternoon as we pulled into a night defensive position in the rubber, I got a radio call from the CO to catch the log bird on the backhaul to Blackhorse Base at Xuan Loc for a special assignment. Stepping off the Chinook I realized I was back in a different world when I got a reaming from a Major on the hook pad about not saluting him smartly. Still there are advantages to a permanent camp like Blackhorse Base so I grabbed a shower and was able to sleep in a cot, both firsts for the month. The next morning I joined 14 other lieutenants and was issued a new gray samsonite briefcase and signed for $75,000 in new Military Payment Certificates. A Finance Corps Major gave me a lecture about "Your job is to swap new MPC for old series MPC for US troops only. If you don't come back with $75k in new and old MPC the Army will garnishee your wages until the difference is made up. One exchange per soldier - no exceptions. No money can be exchanged after midnight for any reason. After 24:00 hours tonight it's sin loi."
The rest of the LT's are sent back to their units. Maybe because I looked as much of a FNG as I was, or maybe to make sure I didn't abscond with the cash to Saigon, the LTC assigns an SP4 from his office to accompany me and the money back to the troop. Wally is nervous about going out to "the field". He asks me if he should bring his "sleeping stuff" or if I thought he'd be back in base camp that night. I suggest he grab a poncho liner, but he says clerks are not authorized weapons or field gear. We rushed out to the log pad, but ended up waiting all day to get a slick going out to D company. Turns out Wally's went to college in Virginia too and we chat about the good times we had on dates at the women's colleges in western Virginia.. About making out in the "Pines Cottages" at Randolph Macon Women's College in Lynchburg after a mixer and helping our dates sneak in the dorms after curfew at Southern Seminary in Buena Vista . He tells me he joined the army to get the GI Bill benefits so he could finish college when he gets out and get his CPA. "A job with a big eight accounting firm. That's where the BIG money is."
That evening I'm back with the troop in a new NDP and Wally and I set up our little money laundering shop in the CP tent extension off the CO's M577 track. Wally has all the 3-part forms in order and the troops line up outside the tent for the money swap. I'm counting in the old MPC and counting out the new, trying to keep the monopoly money in organized piles on the field desk. The CP radio on the command net is connected to a speaker in the track. Suddenly a calm voice on the radio says "Thunder 7 reports incoming". Then in seconds a more excited voice "Thunder 4 has incoming!" "Fire Base Andy has movement in the wire!". Then the voices overlap as too many people try to transmit at once. The CO is yelling "Stand To - Everybody UP!".
I grab my M16 and run for the perimeter. The line of troopers with old money in hand has melted away. Diesel engines are cranking up on the tanks to provide turret hydraulic power and I look back to see Wally in the light of our Coleman lantern in the tent stuffing the money back in the briefcase. Then I realize I'm not assigned to a tank at the moment and don't have anyplace I'm supposed to run to. Tank 2-4 is parked in the perimeter, but it's power plant is on the ground behind it, the engine deck beside the pack and all the access hatches wide open. Motor Daddy had pulled the engine/transmission on 2-4 to fix a major fuel leak and the regular crew are manning 45, the XO's tank. I dive under the hull of 2-4 just as mortars begin dropping within the perimeter. The first round hits right by the CP tent and then I lose count as I try to decide if I'm safer under the middle of the hull, or hunkered close against the road wheels. The incoming rounds are going off with only a little bang and throwing up big fountains of mud. Some rational part of my mind says "gee, they are firing HE with a delay fuse setting, trying to get a hit on top on a tank". Then I wonder what will happen if a delay round lands in the empty hull above me. Will it come through? or will it just puncture the exposed aluminum fuel tanks and shower me in burning fuel? The open engine hatches above me seem like a funnel directing unseen falling rounds towards me. It seems real dark and lonely under that tank. The tanks on either side of me open up with their main guns. I try to see what they are firing at, but I've lost my night vision from the lantern. I check my rifle to see if I have a round in the chamber and fumble with the receiver until I realize I still have an plastic ball point pen stamped "US Army" clutched in my hand. My web gear is hanging on the tent pole back in the CP, so I only have one magazine. The 4.2 mortar track is hanging flares now but I still can't see anything. God, I hope Charlie doesn't spot this dead tank in the perimeter and decide to come through here. Lots of tracers now - mostly orange going out, but I see some green coming in. A burst of green hits the hull above me and the spent green tracer pellet from a round bounces under the track with me. For a second I can see my hands shaking in the sickly green light until it burns out. Finally the firing dies down and I decide I'd be better off in the turret of 2-4 rather than under it even with no power. I clamber up the road wheels and over the right track, then haul myself over the sponson boxes, and crawl over the bussle rack and slither head first into the tank commander's hatch, breaking my fall with my hands on the turret ring. I feel a lot safer with 50 tons of tank wrapped around me.
The rest of the night lasts about a 100 years. 2-4 still has a .50 mounted on the cupola and I dig spare ammo out for it, but can't find an M79 for the parachute flare rounds in the bussel rack so I'll have no light unless someone else hangs it. Without the pack there is no power for the radios so I don't have any idea what is going on. Alone and with no power there is no turning the turret. Finally it is morning and we stand down. As I'm climbing off 2-4 I see the engine compartment is full of diesel fuel; it looks like an oily swimming pool. With all the hatches open both saddle tanks were ripped open by shrapnel. Motor Daddy will have a bigger job fixing the fuel leak than he planned.
I walk over to 1-1 to talk to Dick, the LT I'm assigned to understudy. Dick says we didn't have anybody get wounded so there's no need for a medivac, but the log bird will be in later We share a box of C's and I get ham and lima beans for breakfast. Oh well. I head up to the CP to find out what the boss wants to do about finishing the currency exchange. He wants to roll soon and has me go from track to track with my recovered samsonite in hand swapping money. . Vietnamese are appearing outside the wire and yelling, waving old MPC. I ignore the snuffies bartering new MPC for old at ridiculous exchange rates. It seems to take hours to swap all the money. I wonder where Wally has slipped off to and why he isn't helping with this endless paperwork . I'll ream him good when I catch him. Finally I'm done, with every name checked off and a signed exchange form from everyone on the list. I head back to the 577 for coffee and to see about catching a lift back to Xuan Loc. Two platoons crank up and leave on the morning road sweep. In the TOC someone asks me "what was that guy's name who was with you? I need it for the morning report." Who are you talking about? "That REMF clerk that came out with you. He got killed last night and had no dog tags.."
I don't know Wally's last name. But I still think about him.
When I think back to life in the field with an armored cavalry troop in Vietnam, the first memory always is one of bone numbing weariness. Unlike the infantry companies which normally were in base camp a third of their time in country, the Blackhorse stayed in the field until after some weeks accumulated vehicle maintenance forced a return to a secured area for repairs. Even then there was little rest, as the crews on the combat vehicles carried out many of the repairs that in a peacetime army are done by maintenance units.
In the field the four troops making up the cavalry squadron would usually move through the rubber or elephant grass or jungle a few kilometers apart. Three clicks is close enough to support each other if one troop got into a heavy contact, but far apart enough to sweep a broad area through western III corps. We tried to keep moving until late in the day to give charlie less chance to plan an attack on the night defensive position in which we would lauger. An ideal NDP would have room to circle the vehicles around a clear landing zone for the resupply helicopters and clear fields of fire for each tank and ACAV. Unfortunately the few ideal NDPs in the area were as well known to charlie as to us, and their locations undoubtedly had been plotted with great precision by the NVA mortar crews. We sometimes were receiving incoming mortars even before the engines were shutdown. Still, a cav troop on the move consumes an enormous amount of fuel and ammunition each day, so placing the NDP at an LZ big enough for the chinooks to land their sling loads was often the only option.
In the perimeter a tank needs to go behind any slight fold in the ground that might shield the hull from direct fire without blocking the guns. The first thing to do after getting into position for the night is get the trip flares out into the grass at the far edge of the field of fire. The trip wires go across likely routes of approach to the tank in the dark. Next claymores go out in front of the vehicles. A claymore is a command detonated antipersonnel mine, essentially a block of C4 explosive on a little tripod with metal fragments attached to one face. It is fired by squeezing a trigger mechanism that sends an electric charge down a wire to the claymore. For the inteligence impaired, one side says "This Side Toward Enemy" in raised letters. On my tank we usually placed three mines, leading the commo wire from each back to the tank commanders cupola and fastening each to a separate clicker. We tried to cover any dead ground in front of the tank with a claymore, figuring charle would use these routes if he tried us on that night. Machine gun ammunition links tied to the detonator wire identified the mines by location, one link for the left most mine , two for the next and so forth. You can count the links by feel in the dark. Next we unloaded the big rolls of concertina wire from the APCs trim vanes and stretched out the barbed wire in front of the tanks. The wire needed to be staked down every few feet, or charlie would prop it up with short sticks so he could crawl under it. With the wire in place, a half dozen trip flares fastened to the wire would hopefully give us some warning if someone tried to slip under the wire. Empty C ration cans with pebbles in them augmented the trip flares as ornaments on the wire.
By this time the first chopper has usually left its sling load of ammunition, replacement parts and C rations in the center of the NDP. If the load was small, the pilot could put it down on top the first sergeants PC, but most days the resupply would be dropped in a cargo net in a heap on the ground. Whoever was currently on the first sergeants black list got to hoist it onto the lowered ramp of his PC. 90mm tank rounds come packed two to the wooden box and weigh 60lbs each, 130lbs to the case. .50 caliber weighs 22lbs to the box, four boxes to the case. An M48 tank carries 63 rounds of ammunition for the main gun, ten boxes of .50 cal and 20 boxes of .30 cal ammunition, plus smoke, CS and fragmentation grenades, parachute flares, M16 ammunition and 40 pounds or so of C4. With fifteen tanks in the company, each of which might fire away a quarter of its basic load each day simply doing recon by fire, it often took several trips by the PC to shuttle all the ammo resupply from the dump point to the tracks. At each tank the ammo would be stacked on the rear deck to be stowed in the ammo racks by the crew. The empty wooden ammo cases were stacked on the sponson boxes and fenders of the tank around the turret. It gave the tanks a rag/tag appearance, but the empty boxes, plus a layer of spare track blocks, water cans and the duffel bags containing the personal gear of the crew all tied to the turret might cause an incoming RPG round to detonate prematurely and thus not penetrate the turret armor.
With the ammo stowed, on every third day it was time for each tank in turn to back into the center of the NDP and refuel from the fuel bladder dropped by the second hook. If the M88 recovery vehicle were with us, the auxiliary winch would be used to lift the bladder and let the diesel fuel feed by gravity into the tanks. But if the M88 were still out towing in a dead tank or in use to pull an engine pack from a tank for repair, the fuel would have to be pumped from ground level into the vehicles using a hand pump and a lot of perspiration. While waiting a turn to fuel, there was time for each crew to check each drive track for loose end connectors, clean weapons and clean the turret basket of loose leaves and trash that had fallen through the open hatches during the day. The outside of a combat tank may look like hell, but the insides of turrets are polished and clean. A small twig in the wrong place can jam a turret. Every day engine oil and hydraulic fluids must be checked, air filters cleaned, radio connectors cleaned and track tension adjusted. With the last log bird for the day in, it was safe to have the artillery fire registration rounds for the pre planed artillery concentrations on the likely approach routes into the NDP. If life was good this would be handled by the artillery FO, but usually the CO ended up with the job. As the platoon leader, I plot these concentrations on the acetate case for my map in a grease pencil that refuses to write on the damp plastic, so if things get tight I can just radio for fire support as "Fire concentration zulu" or "from Echo, drop 200"..
After getting the arty in, my next job is to visit each tank and show the flag. I talk with each crew, find out what they need for resupply, and confirm with them their fields of fire and the importance of maintaining fire discipline that night. One truth of Vietnam is we are going to have to get through the night using whatever resources are now loaded on the tanks there will be no resupply until first light. By this time it is close to darkness and time to get the listening post out in front of the platoon. In bad areas each platoon puts out a two man listening post; two men armed with only a radio, grenades and M16s who will crouch in a shallow hole a hundred meters or so outside the wire to listen for charlie. In the event of trouble, they will radio a warning and then try to withdraw within the NDP before we open up. I choose one man from each of two tanks for the LP. Two tanks, because being short a man will mean less sleep for that crew. A two man LP so hopefully one can sleep while the other keeps watch. LP duty is not popular, so I take my turn on LP with the rest of the snuffies in the platoon. It is lonely out there in the dark.
With the LP dispatched at last light so charlie hopefully wont see them move into position, there is just time to read the mail from the log bird before full dark. Most days, it is just bills and junk mail. There is some irony is reading a mailing with this months selection from Columbia Record Club while eating Cs sitting on the rear deck of an M48 in nam. At full dark we set nighttime watches. Half of each four man crew will be awake and in the turret all night in two hour shifts. The driver will crank the engine twice during the night to keep the batteries charged and the engine warm. In a fire fight we'll need engine power for the turret hydralics. One man keeps watch at the .50 in the TCs hatch, the other with an M79 grenade launcher in the loaders hatch. Night falls quickly this close to the equator, and in a minute it is full dark. Most nights I take the second and forth shifts, so I can attend a leaders call at the COs track before getting an hours sleep. At the briefing, Ron will share the intelligence fantasies of the squadron S2, and talk about plans for the sweep or road march scheduled for tomorrow. With luck, I can get an hours sleep 10-11, and then another two hours 1 to 3, before stand to at first light at 5 AM. If charlie leaves us alone, well stand down at 6AM, then pull in the LP, collect the trip flares, roll up the concertina and collect the claymores, then after a gourmet breakfast of Cs warmed over the exhaust manifold, well be ready to move out by 7:30AM. Three hours sleep, and a 14 hour day of breaking jungle, sweeping through the rubber or convey security ahead. Most days will see a firefight, big or small. Just another day at the office, one day out of 365, and in fact a quiet day.
Vietnam has two seasons: wet and dry. During the dry season tracked combat vehicles can negotiate about 70% of the countryside, but during the rainy season only perhaps a third of the area can be crossed in a tank, slightly more in a personnel carrier. It is difficult to describe the misery of life in the field in a combat vehicle in the rainy season. Tracked vehicles churn the ground into a thick muddy slop. If you try to walk from one tank to another, a person may sink into the mud for several feet. Walking is a laborious process of pulling one foot out of the mud, then taking a step with ten pounds of mud cling to that boot, then repeating the process. Wherever tracks had been moving we began to think of the vehicles like boats at sea - if you needed to move to another vehicle, often driving up beside the other vehicle and jumping across was the only practical way of moving. If you had to dismount, slow deliberate movements like a swimmer entering cold water avoided getting stuck in the thick mud - sometimes. Most new replacements made the mistake of jumping off the tank fender into mud once, and finding themselves trapped in the goo until pulled out, sometimes with the hoist from the tank recovery vehicle. We enforced strict rules prohibiting tracked vehicle movement within the center area of the circular Night Defensive Position. If only the perimeter is churned up, walking remains barely possible in the center of the position, often in only a few inches of mud. We occupied a new NDP each night, in part to confuse charlie's mortar registration and attack planning, but also for the advantage of undisturbed ground around the command and mortar tracks.
Living constantly in mud, skin assumes a dark chocolate color and uniform clothing literally rots off of your body. One of the most prized possessions in my platoon was an Australian shower - a canvas bucket with a zinc showerhead on the bottom. Filled with a gallon of clean drinking water and hung from a gun tube, a shower naked under the bucket left you feeling if not cleaner, at least cooler for a few minutes. You don't want to use untreated local water even for washing if you can avoid it. Luxury consists of a show, followed by new clothing. No one wore uniform insignia in the field. Partially to avoid snipers picking out officers, but largely because new unmarked jungle fatigues were issued weekly to replace rotting clothing. Underwear was mostly unavailable, but we never wore it in any case as in the rain it only encouraged fungus infections.
Even by 1969 standards, the M48 tanks in my platoon were hardly high tech. Designed shortly after W.W.II and put in service just after Korea, they were simple and rugged. Yet the rain attacked even this level of technology. The communication switch boxes at each crew station seldom worked.in the rain I kept a simple hand microphone and speaker plugged into the face of the radio, bypassing the turret wiring connecting my helmet to the radio. In combat, the radio is your most important weapon; with a working radio, you can call for artillery or air support, talk to the mortar crew, and yell for help from a sister platoon. An electrical short in the turret wiring can literally leave you on your own. The rain also caused the precision optics of the fire control system to mist over, so most engagements involved firing by eye from the tank commander's position. Sort of literally shooting from the hip. With engagement ranges of from ten feet to a hundred yards, optical sights were not really needed in any case. With the gunner blind if left in the turret, he usually rode instead in the open on the rear deck of the tank armed with an M16 rifle to provide close in protection from dug in infantry. Even the firing circuit of the main gun would fail in the rain, so most TC's became expert at firing by kicking the manual plunger on the gun breech with the left foot. Mud made even routine maintenance a misery. Broken torsion bars were common on the tanks as we normally operated at over the tank's design weight and at high speed on rough terrain. And of course any mine detonation would usually break both the track and torsion bars.. A torsion bar for an M48 road wheel weighs ninety pounds. To change one requires releasing the track tension, picking up the side of the tank with the M88 hoist, unbolting the road arm, driving the broken bar segment out with a sledge hammer, sliding the new bar in and reassembling the road wheel and track. A nasty, heavy job in an asphalt parking lot, but pure misery working in three feet of soft mud.
Crews on the ACAV's lived in somewhat greater comfort that tank crews. The M113 personnel carrier provides a relatively flat interior populated only by ammo cans, rations, and all the other hard angular obstructions needed on the floor of a combat vehicle. The cargo and track commander's hatches normally stay open, but that still leaves a relatively dry area on either side of the TC's station that can be used for sleeping. Certainly dryer than sleeping on the rear deck of a tank under a poncho. In the field the only comfortable place to sleep is in the M577 command track or the M88 recovery vehicle. With the canvas extensions up, there is room in the M577 for four people to know the exquisite joy of sleeping out of the rain on a cot above the mud. The first sergeant and RTO regard the M577 as theirs and guard this space jealously. Occasionally on quite nights the CO can sleep on a cot there, but a myriad of demands usually keep him out in the mud.
Hot food usually came to the field once a day in insulated mermite cans. At least it was presumably hot when placed in the can, but after a helicopter flight at altitude in a chopper with the doors removed, it was seldom hot on arrival. Somehow the shipping contrived to make the usual breakfast consist of absolutely limp bacon, dry toast that shattered on the first bite, scrambled eggs that had separated back to their constituent powder and water, and warm milk smelling like the powdered milk from which it was reconstituted. Enjoyed in a pounding rain sitting in the hatch of a combat vehicle while watching the fog roll through the trees, it did at least make a change from the usual C rations.
Whenever someone asks me which of the popular films on Vietnam I find most realistic, I have to say "none of them." Films are made to entertain, not to convey reality. The reality of life in the field in Vietnam was one of continuous misery, fear and brutal hard work, interspersed by episodes of terror. But it did have the compensation that mostly no one screwed with you. No one would be interested in paying to see a film about the "real" war, not even those who lived it. Films need a beginning, a moral conflict and a resolution. War in Vietnam just went on and on, day after day. In the last scene of the movie Platoon Charlie Sheen.is being medivaced with a minor wound after his platoon was overrun. In the movie his war is over; in real life he'd have spent a day at a field hospital and be back in the field in a week.
The United States army is organized into specialty branches and within a branch individuals are further trained and eventually listed as qualified in a Military Occupational Specialty or MOS. In the Vietnam era MOS 11B is listed a Light Weapons Infantry, the basic grunt and an 11D is a Armored Vehicle crewman. Prefixes and suffixes further identify particular skills. So for example I was a 1203 - Armored Unit commander and became an 11203, an parachute qualified Armored Unit commander. There are literally thousands of MOS's and qualifiers in the Army. Although outsiders think most of the Army is made up of 11B's, in fact combat troops are a minority, even in a combat zone. So in Vietnam while there were over 550,000 troops in country, the greatest number of ground combat maneuver troops ever available for duty there at one time was about 50,000.
Of all the branches, only Infantry and Armor have as their mission statement to "Close with and destroy the enemy". At its simplest, one fights mostly on foot, the other mostly from a vehicle. But there is another difference between the experiences of serving in the two branches. In an Infantry fire team you live, work and fight with four other men and come to know them better than you know your own brother. But frequently when actually in a firefight you are out of sight and immediate communication with the others in your unit. Individuals disperse so as not to offer a single target and to be mutually supporting by fire. Down in the weeds with a rifle and incoming fire, you often can't see anyone else. A member of a combat vehicle crew has the opposite experience. He never goes anywhere in combat without being able to reach out and touch the other members of the crew. Even in the incredibly noisy environment of a firefight involving tanks and personnel carriers, excellent electronic communications mean that every member of the crew can always be heard by the others.
A tank crew consists of a driver, a loader, a gunner and a tank commander. An ACAV crew in Vietnam consisted of a driver, two side gunners and a track commander. The fate of the entire crew is intimately tied to the performance of each member. A gunner cannot find targets, only hit those identified by the TC. He cannot load the main gun or coax, only fire them after the loader has done his job and the driver has positioned the vehicle so they can kill and hopefully not be killed. You cannot do the other man's job, nor often even check that it has been done correctly. Mutual trust is built into the situation. Besides the requirement for trust imposed by the job though, you spend a lot of time with those other three men. At night in the field two of you are always awake and there are a lot of hours to fill. In the day there are many hours where absolute alertness is not required, so again there are hours to fill with talk. There is not much you don't know about a man after serving on a crew with him.
A long time after Vietnam I visited the display of armored vehicles at Aberdeen Proving Ground and sure enough there was a post Vietnam vintage M48A4 tank on display. Only it wasn't. The lifeless 55tons of steel had the shape of a tank but it wasn't a tank.
It didn't smell. A tank smells of burned diesel fuel and cordite and stale food and sweat and fear. It had no weapons mounted and the gun tube was rusty. To a tank crew weapons are life. Weapons are cleaned first, before eating, before sleeping, before using the latrine. A tank without working weapons is not a tank, it is a monument. The hull was sparsely clean. A tank in combat looks like the Clampetts moving to Beverly Hills. There is spare small arms ammo, and pyrotechnics and personal gear and tools and wire stakes and razor wire strapped all over the outside of the turret wherever it won't blind the optics or restrict a field of fire. In combat there is no room for clutter inside the turret, so all the oddments go on the outside where they won't be in the way. Besides, they just might detonate an incoming RPG before it hits the armor, turning a fiery death into just a loud bang. All the baggage strapped to the turret made each tank as recognizable to the crew as the face of a friend. The hull was marked only with official stencils for unit designation. A real tank has crew notations all over it, from the "65" written on the sponson box to remind the crew of the torque used to tighten end connectors to the magic marker arrow on the gun breech to remind the gunner which way to turn the firing pin well cap when cleaning the main gun.
For Doober and John and Mike I hope the rusty parody of a tank sitting at Aberdeen covered in pigeon droppings isn't D31 1/11. Let it be some hull assigned to the Ordinance Board that has never known life.
with the "Tales" go HERE