Casey should have been restrained by force, if necessary and held until resupply arrived, no matter how long that took, but that wasn’t going to happen. Casey wanted to go on the mission down to the river and confront the tank. In the dark. With a small band of men armed with little more than tiny and undependable LAW anti-tank tubes. And the Gunny wanted him to go. Our reinforced scout team, without machine guns, was to go against what was likely a Russian main battle tank. I would lead the mission, while Captain Casey would be the make believe commander, or the other way around, depending on the perspective.
“Big planes are called Sandys,” Casey said, kneeling on my spread out poncho cover. “The Gunny says you have sand. Does that have something to do with the planes?”
I hesitated, while preparing my hooch. It was too dark to see Casey’s face, and his back was to me. The man was like an idiot savant. I had no idea how the Skyraiders had come to be known as Sandys. For some idiotic reason, though, what he’d said made me feel a bit less scared, like when he’d said that I was ‘his’ Junior.
I called my scout team together to prepare for the move we had to make down toward the river bank.
“Stevens and Nguyen,” I said, looking at both men, “there’s no point in your being along. When that tank comes across, your being there won’t make any difference. I need Zippo for the scope and Fusner for the radio, and that’s it. Let’s limit our exposure. You stick with the Gunny until we come back.”
I pulled the two letters I’d written home from my left thigh pocket, and rolled the envelopes carefully together before sticking out my hand toward Stevens. He looked down at the rolled letters in the dim light, and then back up at me, before taking both in his right hand. Neither of us said anything. We both knew it wasn’t very likely I’d ever be coming back for my stuff. I hoped he and Nguyen would make sure to give my last letters to Macho Man, no matter what, and they’d get home. For some reason, I felt that it was vitally important that my wife get my last words, although I hadn’t written anything truly meaningful in the body of the letters.
I continued getting my stuff together. I wanted to make sure everything I had left was protected, in case it rained while I was gone.
“Okay, Fusner,” I said, “I want to be up on the command net. We can’t use artillery, although I’m going to call in a maximum range shot upriver just to sow some confusion while we’re making the crawl down there. “Get me the codes for Ripcord. Maybe those Army guys can give us a red bag.”
“Red bag?” Zippo asked as Fusner went to work fiddling with his radio.
“Howitzers fire projectiles using bags of powder,” I replied to Zippo, while I worked. “The longer the shot, the more bags of powder they stuff into the chamber. It’s worked that way since Napoleon invented the system. The first seven bags of powder come in white and green colors. Charge seven or eight can be a big red bag though, packed in to reach maximum range. I’ll ask for some red bag rounds to make it seem like the artillery is going to be adjusted in closer, even though we can’t get it closer. Maybe some rounds will drop close enough to keep some heads down, at least until we get near the river’s edge on our side.”
Fusner held out the radio handset toward me.
“Whiskey, Whisky Red Ball, at your service, over” came out of the small external microphone on the body of the radio.
Before calling in the mission, I identified myself and our unit code, giving the firebase radio operator our location. I asked for the GPO (Gun Position Officer). The radio went dead for almost a full minute before coming back up.
I told the GPO our problem and asked what kind of maximum range fire we might get since our position was almost thirty-five kilometers from their mountain-top base.
“Hey, Cunningham’s been firing for you guys. They said you were alright, Junior” the guy said. “You know we got a two-gun element of 175s here. You’re in defilade for Cunningham, but we can reach you with some H.E. Slow though. One shot a minute from each tube.”
I looked around and thought deeply for a few seconds. The news was good. The range of 175 was a little more than forty kilometers, outshooting anything in our theater on either side, except maybe naval gunfire from the New Jersey. The shells weighed almost two hundred pounds or four times the size of 105 ammo. The problem was, using the red bag to get out as far as we were, made the guns inaccurate at range, especially in our situation, which was beyond the enemy and right on the gun target line. The 175s fired only high explosive rounds and chemical. I asked the battery to stand by for an adjusting round.
The Gunny approached close, staying down close to the wet earth and beaten down jungle bracken. The company hadn’t yet taken any fire in the darkness. I felt an uncommonly cool wind beginning to blow downriver from the north, as if the elevation of the deep valley had been raised up to the top of the mountain we’d descended earlier. I was aware of the rough slurry sound of the river’s flowing water, as well as the usual buzz of hungry hunting mosquitos. The water level had to be dropping quickly I realized, as only an hour before the sound of it had been closer to a dull rumbling roar. The lower the river ran, the more likely the NVA would cross, and the darkness of a nearly moonless night would only act to encourage them, I knew. The company had become a non-moving target and there was no place for it to retreat. We would stand or we would all die. For some reason simply thinking that thought deadened the terror inhabiting my core. It was my United States Marine Rifle Company even if I wasn’t the company’s choice as a decent officer.
The Gunny dumped a pack stuffed full of something in front of me. I bent back slightly, the pack rolling heavily until it was only a few inches away.
“That’s all of our Comp. B.” he said. “Gathered it all together. About twenty-five pounds or so, with a pull action igniter and half minute fuse. I don’t know what it’ll do to a battle tank, but it’s something, at least.”
I grasped hold of the pack and examined the pull-type igniter attached to its side. I knew the fuse cord would burn brightly in the night once the igniter was pulled, making the carrier of the pack an illuminated target running across the night. Would that make any difference? Twenty-five pounds of Comp. B. was nothing to be taken lightly. Even if tossed atop a tank, however, the blast would almost entirely be directed away from the armor. But if the pack were thrown under the carriage, well, that might be a different story. Even a forty-ton tank could be blown several feet into the air, and the effect on any crew inside the rolling ‘metal coffin’ would be devastating, if not outright fatal. I moved the pack so I could complete closing the poncho I’d used to cover my own pack, and what little belongings I possessed.
The pack of explosives lifted into the air in front of me, as if pulled up by an invisible cord. But there was no cord. It was Nguyen’s supple arm, invisible in the night. He and the pack of explosives were gone before I could see anything more than a passing riff of white teeth from his thin smile. I felt better, again, wondering why most of my hope in staying alive was becoming founded on the feelings and actions of one crazy person and one native I couldn’t possibly understand. Stevens wasn’t coming on the patrol, but Nguyen was. Nothing was as it was supposed to be.
Four Marines, hauling LAW tubes slung down from their shoulders, came out of the blackness behind the Gunny. They hunkered down nearby. I couldn’t see their expressions, but I would have bet a lot they weren’t happy to be going out into the open and likely facing the first tank they’d ever gone up against, with a weapon not well regarded, even for anti-personnel use. The enemy’s RPG tubes fired six and a half pound rounds, which would have been much more effective, if we’d had any, which we didn’t.
I moved past the poncho cover, guided my dying flashlight beam down onto the mud, and cleared a small area free with my right hand. I drew a curved line to represent the river, another for the cliff to our right, and then stuck small stones in the places where the enemy positions were likely to be. I used a bigger stone for the tank. Casey moved up to my left shoulder, took off his helmet and stared down at my mud battle map.
“It’s the color of night,” he whispered.
“More like black as the ace of spades,” the Gunny whispered, more to himself than those around him.
I breathed deep and then laid out the simple details of my plan. We’d crawl down to the brush just back from the moving water. Fusner and I would remain with two LAW operators, while Casey would proceed fifty yards, or so, upriver to hopefully be in a place where the tank had to cross to get to us. First, we’d all stay together while I examined the tank and its supporting elements on the other side. I was afraid of what might happen if the tank crossed outside of the area between where our two positions would be. Tanks were a hell of a lot faster than men trying to move armed across the wet sandy mud.
“No,” Casey said, sticking his finger in the mud.
I wanted to say “No, what?” but held back. I’d seen enough of Casey’s strange behavior to give him a chance, and he was still the company commander. The Gunny pulled out a cigarette and lit it. The rest of us did nothing but fidget under the mosquito onslaught and wait. The Gunny took a long pull and then blew the smoke off to the side before offering the thing to me. I looked him in the eyes. Was the cigarette an olive branch, because I wasn’t at all sure about where the Gunny really stood. I took the cigarette and inhaled once, before handing it back. I coughed the smoke back out.
“All stay together,” Casey finally said, erasing the position I’d designated for the ‘pincher’ team of LAW operators. “Better to hit the treads with four on one side. Better chance to take out the track and then the tank can only spin around like a top. Tank top.”
It took me only a few seconds to realize the captain was right. If we stayed together we would make it much more likely that we’d get all four rounds on the target, and a tank with one track was pretty useless, except for the gun turret’s capability to turn and adjust fire, even if from only a static position.
“What about the alligators?” one of the LAW Marines asked.
“Grenade,” Casey replied, instantly. “Poof,” he said, throwing both his hands into the air to simulate an explosion. Then he leaned down and appeared to pick up some small bits which he then moved toward his mouth. “Mmmm, tastes like chicken,” he said.
In spite of the tension, everyone except me laughed. I recorded the fact in my mind that sanity might not be a very important qualifier for being a good company commander. I couldn’t laugh and I sure as hell couldn’t make anyone in the company laugh, even if I got the ability back myself.
The loosely gathered band of Marines, formed into a dedicated and poorly armed patrol, got ready to move out. From different directions, but arriving on the scene at the same time, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy showed up, each with a small entourage of Marines from their platoons. Jurgens crouched on one side of the Gunny and Sugar Daddy on the other. The Gunny nodded seriously toward me, flicking his cigarette and blowing more smoke, as I motioned for Fusner to pass me the handset. I’d scrapped my plan to come up on the command net once I found out the 175s could reach us, even if it they’d be firing out near the end of their accurate engagement envelope.
I laid down on the berm with my team behind me to sight and, and then adjust the first round. When “splash, over” played into my ear (I’d motioned for Fusner to switch off the external speaker) I alerted everyone around me to lay flat.
The big round came over, and I knew right away it was trouble. I’d called in a registration point nearly five hundred meters north of where I thought the tank had to be, so there should have been no express sound of the round going over our heads. The two-hundred-pound high explosive shell went off across the river, but only about three hundred yards from our position. And it was south of our position. Not good. Willie Peter hadn’t been needed to see the results of its effect however. The monster yellow explosion cost everyone who looked up to lose night vision. I was one of them.
“Shit,” I hissed out, calling for another round, blinking rapidly. I knew it was the wind. If the wind across the ground was picking up and running south, then the winds aloft had to be blowing more fiercely, and the effect of that had been pretty obvious and potentially deadly. But we had artillery, no matter how inaccurate, and the enemy wouldn’t know I’d called it in to land much farther away.
I motioned for everyone to start crawling toward the river, as I used adjustment by gun target line to drop one thousand, hopefully placing the next round where the first one had been calculated to land.
The last thing I saw when I looked back, before going over the berm into the riverbank mud, was Gunny’s eyes, reflecting back at me from the still burning mess the first round had ignited further downriver. His eyes were big and round, no doubt in expectation of where the next incoming might land. Jurgens and Sugar Daddy lay on each side of him. The enemy didn’t know I was pulling adjustments out of my ass, but the three non-coms certainly did.
The crawl down to the brush and bracken just back from the sand leading into the fast-flowing water was without incident. The second big round came in upriver but, except for the vibration and distant thundering sound of it going off, I couldn’t tell where it landed. I still felt it had impacted too far south for comfort, however. Calling any more fire in might prove as iffy and dangerous as dealing with the tank.
Once marginally safe by jamming ourselves into the camouflage provided by the brush I got the Starlight whirring and running atop Zippo’s flat broad back.
“Stop breathing,” I instructed.
“Everyone gets to breathe,” Casey whispered, plopping himself down on his belly no more than few inches from me. I ignored him, peering into the single green lens.
The tank was indeed a tank. It sat under piles of hastily thrown together brush, but it would have taken half a jungle forest to truly hide it. Gunny’s impossible tank was there, as I knew it would be. Nothing seemed beyond the capability of the Vietnamese when it came to pulling off unlikely or even seemingly impossible combat tricks. I could see no support vehicles or any troops. Everything around the tank was hidden by jungle growth or the folds of river bank running west toward the invisible and distant valley wall on the other side.
The artillery rounds had done their work because we’d made it to the river without being fired upon, but it hadn’t kept us from being seen. The enemy opened up from the hill, where we’d calculated they’d set up a base of fire, more to support their coming tank attack than our assault down to the river, I thought. The hill was no more than a few hundred meters from where the first 175 had come in, so I quickly called for another round, adding the one thousand meters back and then moving the shot right two hundred. The 175 round was in the air between ‘shot’ and ‘splash’ when the big fifty-caliber opened up on us. The heavy machine gun got no more than about forty rounds out of it when the big shell came whooshing in. I didn’t wait to see what the results were. I called for a couple more rounds, left and right one hundred. The hill in the southern distance exploded again and again but no more enemy fire came from it. But then small arms opened up from all around where the tank was located, again targeting our position.
What seemed like a brilliant white waterfall dropped down over my head from behind. The company had opened up to return fire, with the tracers from M-16s and the M-60s racing over our heads. Jurgens and Sugar Daddy were back there, I knew only too well, but the fire seemed to be directed only at enemy positions on the opposing bank of the river.
Casey ran to the where the LAW team was spread flat on the mud nearby, then quickly returned. He yelled in my ear that two of the guys were dead. Having fired less than one full belt of ammo the big fifty had killed two Marines.
“Can you shoot a LAW?” I asked Fusner.
“Hell, I think so,” he replied, unstrapping his radio and handing me the handset. “Don’t touch any of the dials. I’ll get one of the LAWs.”
Nguyen came out of nowhere, plopped the bag of composition B down next to me, and then scuttled the few feet back into full dark over to where Fusner had gone. Would he be able to handle the fourth LAW I wondered, not that it made much difference because there was nobody else?
Out of the agonizing muddle of small arms fire and the burning tracers racing around, the giant diesel engine of the tank fired up, and fear raced up and down my spine like out of control lightning. I tried to concentrate, and get my own breathing under control enough to look through the scope. I had to see where the damned thing was. The sound of the enemy fire in front of us and the company’s fire behind was awful but the roaring diesel sound made me quiver inside.
I focused the single optical lens of the scope on the tank, and realized I had no way to illuminate it once it got into the river. I’d forgotten to have the Gunny give me some illumination grenades. How were Fusner, Nguyen and the other two Marines supposed to see the damned tank once it began to clear the river and mount the bank we were holed up on?
I thanked God that Zippo was cool as a cucumber and remained totally still, as I stared into the Starlight scope.
The tank began to pull forward. It didn’t move fast at all. It gently closed the distance to the water’s running edge, but it didn’t stop when it got there. The clanking of its tracks became the loudest sound on the battlefield, as it eased into the water. I held the radio handset in my free hand, but I knew I could not call in any 175 rounds to try to hit the frightful thing because there was no accuracy at all in the big rounds, not with the windy meteorological heights through which they were flying.
The river was not too deep. I saw that right away. The giant green tank in my scope slowly moved from the far bank toward our own, the rushing water swarming up one side of it, and then creating a spume as it flew over the turret’s top. I wondered why the big gun hadn’t already opened up while the thing was on the move or even earlier when our position had been spotted.
The color of the night wasn’t black. It was green, yellow, red and whatever awful color the coming battle tank was painted. Out of pure fear I called in another round from Ripcord. I split the difference in range. The round was to impact somewhere around where the tank was, or we were, or wherever, I thought as I pulled back from Zippo’s back and pressed my face and body as deep into the brush and mud as I could get it.
<<<<<< Beginning | Next Chapter >>>>>>
Served with 1/4, bn. RO, 1969 until we pulled out. Have been hooked since the first chapter. Bought the book and left a review. Would’ve been extremely proud to serve with “Jr.”! Semper Fi Marine!
Well, Randall, the same goes for you. There are a rare small number of us around, those guys who were real back then
and now, as we age into eternity. Thanks for commenting so meaningfully here and thanks, as well, for buying my book and leaving that comment.
See if you can break away for our “Vietnam Combat Rendezvous” in Salina on the 4th of July. We’re just throwing this together as we go along!
Love to shake your hand.
I was on here reading comments while I suffer through with everyone waiting until another chapter comes out and I thought I would go back to Amazon and leave a review. I had ordered the book the other day. While I was there I realized I had ordered it on Kindle. I don’t do Kindle so I went ahead and ordered a paperback. Anyway, keep up the good work and keep it coming!
Thank you Sherm. I really appreciate the endurance you have demonstrated to get the book
into your hands. The book is a lot easier to read and has almost no errors (Thanks to the guys on here who’ve
kept me straight). Really appreciate the support at this point and your enjoyment of the story…
I have been following this on line and have now bought the Kindle version. Reading that again is good since I really missed a lot the first time through. Left you a 5 star review.
thanks Bob and yes the written formalized versions are better because of the limitations
the website puts on publishing. Hard to make the segments legible and well put together online.
thanks for buying the book and I hope you leave a review.
Means a lot at this early stage.
Bought it on line a few minutes ago, but already posted my review having read it on line all along. You really captured the story. And proved that my PTSD hasn’t disappeared. Can’t wait for the rest of the story.
Thank you Steve, finishing Fourteenth Day right this second at my coffee shop.
Thanks for the help. Comments mean a ton right now on Amazon, as I try to build the
circulation into something…and I’m not sure what…
Ordered the paperback last night! Am anxiously awaiting its arrival. I’m about to sit back & catch up your last two installments as I’ve been quite busy.
Have also been sharing the link & letting others know of this story.
Keep it up James! Great writing, very descriptive & puts the reader right there. I think it’s important for younger people like me to read an account of what it was really like for you over there.
Thank you Bob. Don’t be put off by the fact that there are a lot of disclaimers regarding fiction
when you get it. I had to do that for a variety of reasons, if there’s to be any truth to the story at all.
Thanks for buying the book and please go to Amazon and write a review, as that will help too.
Semper fi, brother,
No worries. I understand the various reasons that brought about the disclaimer.
Unfortunately, I cannot leave a review on Amazon at the moment, as your paperback is the first thing I have ever bought from them.
I will post a review, as soon as their site will allow me too.
Keep up the great work!
You have to spend fifty bucks before they will let you review a book.
I know it’s shitty but they are mostly a monopoly like the airlines now.
The downside of free trade and the capitalistic system. Thanks for trying
and thanks for buying the book. Means a lot to me, especially at this formative date.
Bought the book on wife’s acct !!
Comment may look like hers !! Maux Nix!!
I thought that all 4 LAWs should be aimed at one area & CC has the same idea !! Now I’m crazy as he is !!
What of Cowboy & his IR he likes to use ?? A 100 other comments but I’ll quit on that !! Cong ke dau the tank !!
Live & love it !!
Thanks for the analysis and thinking like Casey. Another area where training failed.
There was no anti-armor training in Basic School. Not field training, anyway. Our
LAWs, the ones we were shown, were dummies. They are loud as hell to launch!
Thanks for the comment and for buying the book and leaving a comment on Amazon. Appreciate the help.
Just before Cambodia started, legally(?), we were working on the border building gun pads for the sp 155, 175, and 8″ guns. I was in B Co. 588th combat engineers. It was a hard job, but got too see lot of things, both good and bad.
I remember on night laying down. Later I was being picked up off of the ground as they fired. I was always amused that the 175 had the longest barrel, but was the most inaccurate gun.
Every once and a while that 25 mile range, unequalled by any other artillery back then,
was more important than accuracy. A good F.O. will also adjust fire very gingerly out
at the end of the envelope. God knows, at maximum range of the 175, what the CEP was
but it had to have been huge…and undiscussed. Thanks for the writing on here and your support.
Go on Amazon and leave a review, if you would. Helps a lot at this point.
I understand what your saying. It was amazing to watch them fire. It seems like I remember them having bagged powder and 3 zones. Zone 1, zone 2, and zone 3. I learned this from one of the gunners. He kind of shook his head when he talked about zone 3.
On the way to find the book and leave my positive comments. Good job!!! and write faster!!!!
White bag, green bag and red bag. Only one red bag, and a combination
of white and green all the way up to the red (eighth in a 175 or seventh in
a 105 or 155). Called charges. Charge one, etc. Direct fire (seeing a target and
shooting at it) is always maximum charge. Thanks for buying the book and leaving a great review.
Needed the help.
I borescoped gun tubes for my unit at Ft. Sill in 1968&69. Gun tubes on 175’s deteriorated rapidly compared to 8″ and 155 gun tubes. I am glad you survived the experience.
I loved the fact, at Sill, that they called the wearing of the barrel ‘tube droop.’ You can
imagine what we were able to do with that after a few drinks. The book is out “The First Ten Days.”
We need all the reviews we can get right now so please go on Amazon and leave one…
Appreciate the help.
Semper fi, and thank you…
Bought a copy of the book and was disappointed that I could not leave a book review comment, as my purchase was lower than the minimum required amount to do so.
Did the next best thing and left a written comment under review by “Roger W. Kemp M.D.” since it DID allow me to do that…Best book on Vietnam I have ever read. Certainly NOT an impersonal and sterile rendition of events and experiences there.
Thank for your support Walt. I do NOT understand these restriction,
but really appreciate your going the extra mile and commenting on the other review.
Figured it out Walt. Amazon does not care what you buy but before they let
you be a ‘member’ of the band and comment they make you have at least a hundred bucks
in purchases through them. They say that it is to make sure you are ‘real’ but, in truth,
a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks. Sorry you found out this way.
I’s send you a hundred bucks but you’d just send it back with a weird proud note!
James Strauss, thank you for getting this latest installment out so quickly. It is a stem winder with real life and death happening every moment. I arrived in country and straight to MACV for newcomer briefs. AF getting Army briefs. I was shit scarred. Into a bunk at about four and a vet told me it’s outgoing making the bunks walk on the plywood floor. Said it was 175s working Cambodia for the guys sent in by Nixon.
Your description of business end of those long hummers gives me even more admiration for a guy with the balls to call it in in the dark. Thank you again for a reviting story and the courage to tell it. Should receive my hard copy early next week. Poppa Joe
If you are more afraid of the other stuff going on to the point where you don’t care
anymore where the artillery comes blasting in then, well, you are in deep shit indeed.
And so it was that night, and on a few others. Nobody ever wants to get hit.
Even a high velocity slug into a hand or foot is a life changer, depending upon how fast you
can get to the real medical help behind the lines.
Appreciate it if you would go on Amazon and leave a review. Those things count a lot since the first book just
came out a couple of days ago.
Thanks for the help.
Done and Did 5stars, well earned LT
Thanks Stephen. Means a lot, as you probably know. It’s tough going at the system
back here. FNG all over again! Really appreciate the help…
Really appreciate all of the support, Stephen
paperback ordered…review posted…
Thanks Dan. The reviews are building and I will get ready to go to New York
for the big Book Expo with a bunch of book and a card table. I don’t have a clue
what I’ll be trying to really do but I am going to assault the lurking lair of the book business.
Thanks for your help in motivating me to go there.
I’ll take an ‘honor’ flight of may own making and then invite
other vets there to come on down to the Javitts Center!!!
We’ll probably all get tossed out but I’ll be in good company…again.
Great writing and best read I’ve had in awhile. Only problem I have it is almost too much to believe. Those who where there never, and happily, saw this much. Did leave a review on amazon.
I don’t think I have asked anyone reading the continuing story to believe it. I want you to feel it.
I cannot possibly get all the detail of what happened down to a fine analytical result. I think everyone
on here understands that. So, there’s a good deal of fiction that must be mixed with the reality.
But the feeling of what it was like is as straight to the heart as I can get it. If you don’t feel that
then I missed the target. And thanks for the review…no matter what you said.
Didn’t mean it in a bad way, was my way of complementing. Keep it up.