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MAN STUFF EPISODE 036 - IT’S NOT A KNIFE
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What follows is an excerpt from “Sole Surviving Sons, a Marine Tanker in Vietnam“. The book is unpublished as of yet and is a Marine odyssey in Vietnam. Please comment if you would lie to hear more…..
DEAD TANK GETS REVENGE
There was one shitty week that I got stuck in the Company area, on light duty, due to a foot infection. Things got real interesting one of those evenings.
Two other Marines, also on light duty, and I spent most all day unloading a tank that had taken four or five RPGs and had just about been turned to junk. The hydraulics were blown out, the electrical system was haywire and it had to have certain areas bypassed with jumpers around the shorts. Not to mention the holes blown through the turret and TC’s cupola.
The vehicle was no longer serviceable, even by Marine Corps standards, and was being stripped down to be sent back to the States, for refitting. I had had to bang an empty cartridge case into part of the electrical system to jump around a short, just to get it started and moved to the ammo bunker. Once there, we could off load the ton of ammunition. We had to unload twenty or so 90mm rounds, a few hundred .50 machinegun rounds, and a few thousand .30s for the coaxial machinegun. We also stripped the tools and any serviceable equipment. It was hot, tiring work and we were all beat by the end of the day.
Not long after we had finished, we were called to a briefing. The Captain had just got off the “horn” with Division Intelligence. He had more good news. It seems the Division Recon teams had spotted two divisions of NVA and they were moving towards our area of responsibility. Intelligence had surmised the scenario, that the NVA intended to sweep into our compound, overrun us, and capture the artillery in our perimeter and use it to shell Da Nang. This had to be the wildest Intel briefing I’d ever heard, but they were all being deadly serious.
Our instructions were bizarre. We were to get the only tank in the area at the time, you guessed it, the one we had just spent the day unloading, fueled, rearmed and running. We were to hold the perimeter as long as possible, but at the first sign that the berm was being breached, we were to turn our main gun on the artillery emplacement, inside of our own wire, and blow it away. Accomplishing this, we were to throw a thermite grenade into the breach of our main gun, close the breach and fuse the gun into a molten lump. After all of that we had no choice but to abandon the vehicle. We would then be on foot and our own. Real fun news to start the evening with.
We once more worked our asses off. We got reloaded, jumpered around the electrical shorts below the turret floor, and even got the Xenon searchlight working. We were a few hours into the night by this time. We decided to take the tank around to the main gate to check out the search light and try to do a minimal sight check. We called in on the radio net, received permission and pulled into the road at the main gate. I was gunning and traversing along a tree line about a thousand meters out. The TC flipped the switch on the searchlight, with the system on infrared I saw something moving and yelled out on the intercom “I think I’ve got something here!” I’d briefly seen four figures moving over a sand dune. We called the Company C. O. to check that there were no friendly patrols operating in that area. He came back on the radio, in seconds, saying “There is no one anywhere around that area, fire, right now! I’ll clear permission with Division later!”
The loader threw an HE round in the tube, and lined up two more to follow it. The TC turned the switch on the white light and I let it rip. Three rounds later there was not much sand dune left. We talked to the C. O. and he said they were arranging a patrol for early morning to check it out, but as far as he was concerned, we had “Four confirmed kills, ‘cause they’re probably blown to pieces!”
The perimeter stayed at 100% alert the rest of the night, but the two divisions of NVA never showed up. Either the intelligence out of Division was bullshit, or our little show made them shy off. I didn’t know which was the reason and I damn sure didn’t care. I’m just glad we didn’t have to play out the Captain’s earlier plans. I didn’t much care for the idea of the four of us, out on our own, crawling in the dirt in the midst of an NVA attack. Armed only with four .45s and 50 some rounds of ball pistol ammunition. I could live very well, thank you, without the thought of that scenario, let alone it’s reality!
Although I’ve since learned from my cousin that there are now automatic big inch guns, in 1967 there weren’t, particularly not on a tank. The new ones are on board ship.
There was an event that became a minor tank legend in our company after we participated in some unnamed sweep. On which for a few brief minutes there was an automatic 90mm tank.
Being a tank gunner has mixed blessings. More often than not, because you can’t see anything much, you have very little idea of just what the hell is going on. Which is probably just as well, saving wear and tear on your nerves. The only way you can tell what’s happening outside is through the gun sites, or listening to the three channels of confusing radio traffic, or whatever the TC might tell you. The gunner’s seat is a frustrating world sometime, but your one consolation is that when it finally happens, you’re in the number one position to deal out the retribution from a 90mm main gun or the coaxial machine gun.
This particular sweep I was gunning, my usual slot, LaVigne (often called Frenchy) was loading and Sgt. Mac was the tank commander, I don’t remember who was doing our driving.
We were taking a lot of fire off and on with the grunts, they were getting chewed up and we were running in very close to the tree lines to provide support and evacuate the wounded and then running back a few hundred yards to the LZs. All this shuttling, and the close in work was making me jumpy. Mac would say come right or come left and I’d bang the hydraulics so hard I’d almost pitch him out of the turret with the speed of the traversing. “Come right” or whatever usually precedes a firing command, which implies that we are taking fire. There were a lot of RPGs whizzing around out there and I didn’t want to take one. Mac got tired of hanging on for his life and told me to “Calm down, take it slow”. So I pulled myself together and cooled out.
We had run back into the tree line to pull out more wounded Marines when Mac said “Come right”, in what sounded a normal tone, so I started to SLOWLY traverse right, then heard a second “Come right”, in the same tone and then a third time louder, followed by “We’re taking fire, COME RIGHT”. At this I whipped it over into some smoke trails that came out of the bush at us, and started popping off the main gun. Normally this fire reload has all sorts of commands to it, but then, there was just one. LaVigne yelling “UP!”, every time the breach block closed on the round he had just loaded. As soon as I heard “UP”, I squeezed the triggers, and immediately heard another “UP” and squeezed again. This went on for about five blistering rounds until Mac hollered “Cease fire!” Whoever had been out there they would have to sift through a strainer, half the tree line was gone. We were blowing off “Canister”, which is like a giant shotgun shell, three and a half inches across and ten to twelve inches high, filled with 250, .45 caliber steel slugs. Until we got back in, I really didn’t have much idea as to what had happened. We got down from the armor plate and LaVigne took a look at the track on the gunner’s side. There were a half dozen holes through it and the road wheels from the RPGS that had been fired at us, none had hit the hull. That rocket gunner must have been close and very nervous to have missed.
Re-hashing the story with the other crews that were out that day. When we started firing, they were popping off so fast it sounded like auto fire and the other crews looked to see us bang off five rounds in as many seconds or less. “The Auto 90”. Seems LaVigne was pushing in the rounds and as soon as the block went up, he’d yell “UP” and snap his arm back as the gun recoiled into the space his head and arm had been, while picking up another round with his other arm. I doubt if there were many other loader/gunner combinations that worked as well as we had that day, and I hadn’t known what the hell was even going on.
LaVigne and I worked together many more times after that until he was on the bad end of an ambush one day that took out two Lts., that were TCing, one of them was on LaVigne’s tank. He was gunning and when the TC got it, the body and the gore fell on top of him sitting below. The crew said it was too much for him to take and he freaked out, so they med-evaced him, I don’t know what really happened, but I never saw him again.
S3, at least as far as we were concerned, was in charge of 1st Tank Battalion’s security. That meant securing two small hills south of the Battalion perimeter, two bridges south and east of the position, and also patrolling the areas around the 1st Tank’s perimeter itself. None of these were very enticing jobs. If patrols were ALL of it, it wouldn’t have been that bad, but in the daylight we also got all the glamorous work of digging pissoirs, repairing bunkers and burning shitcans. All this after roaming the countryside for two to four hours every night. Night after night. Most of the time we couldn’t muster more than half the troops assigned to patrol. It’s very difficult to convince a drunk or someone in a sound sleep that he should get up to slog around in the mud and monsoons for a few hours. Sometimes we didn’t press it and just went out with what we had. Sometimes that wasn’t much.
One particular night I got up, put on my illegal camouflage rain suit (it came from the states with me and never saw a laundry for over two months of nightly patrols, I’d just take them off of the nail where they hung, bang them against the hooch to crack most of the mud off and put them on to let the rain do any further cleaning, (with what they were put through every night it made very little sense to me to actually clean them) and headed up to the Command bunker. When I get there the only other Marine present was PFC Walker. We waited awhile for the others to show up, and then walked back to the hooches in the rain to try to round some people up. We didn’t have any luck; everyone we could even get to talk to us had one reason or another to not go out. Most of them just told us to f*** off.
We looked at each other, said the hell with it and went out on our own. Walker was the point and auto weapons man, and I humped the radio and was rear security carrying my old M-14. We went out the wire in the midst of the usual drizzle. Two man patrols boarder on being suicidal, but this was close to Battalion, and we could always call up some mortar support on the radio if we really needed it. Our patrol route was relatively safe, but it still got very strange out there on some nights. We spent four hours one night, snoopin’ n poopin’, and calling for illumination every time we moved while we tried to figure out if we were on their trail or they were on ours. After a very tense night we never did find out, just as well. Who knew how many of THEM there were.
We had wound through about three fourths of our patrol route, getting ready to go back in through the wire not long after going through an area with a little abandoned Vietnamese shack. I’d been walking backwards half the time checking that our rear was safe and clear. On one of these turn-a rounds to look back down the trail, when I turned back Walker was GONE! We were right at the point where the trail branched off again. Trying to look everywhere at once, I ran down one of the trails hoping to find Walker, but thinking the gooks had taken him out when my back was turned and I was next.
Nobody. I went back up the trail to search out the other branches. About this time I ran into a hallucination, I hope. Someone was moving through the area of the hooch and it wasn’t Walker, I leveled my M-14 at him and backed down the trail away from him as he seemed to do the same. Again I had no idea how many of THEM there might be, perhaps he thought the same thing.
I hadn’t any luck finding Walker, so I headed toward the wire where we were to go in, moving cautiously; once I was within a hundred yards or so from our entry point I spotted another little guy with a weapon coming back on the trail heading in my direction. I got off the trail and locked the sights of my rifle on him, tracking his head while whispering “Walker, Walker, is that you?” ready to squeeze off a round. You must understand that Walker was as small, if not smaller, than the average Vietnamese so this was very touchy, very dangerous.
Luckily I received the answer that I was hoping to hear. It was him. He had moved right along the trail and on up to the edge of the bush near the wire, before noticing he’d lost me. He had turned around to have me call in, so we could enter the wire without getting lit up by our own guys, but I wasn’t there. He thought I was hanging back in the bush and waved me up a couple times, but I didn’t come. This is when he had the same thoughts as I had, that the dinks had grabbed me off from behind him. He couldn’t even get back in or contact Battalion without me and the radio, so he started working his way back down the trail to where we met back up. We went back to the wire and radioed in and entered the perimeter.
My last two man patrol. It was too difficult for two guys to hold down as many jobs as were required of a patrol and not get screwed up. Robert Walker stayed at Battalion and continued to run the S3 patrols throughout his tour there. We ran other patrols together again, as Corporals, but I seriously doubt if he ever tried to run a two man patrol again.