Operation into War Zone D, Late September 1966

The Major to my left is Robert (Bob) Montel, on his obligatory artillery assignment from the Special Forces. This was his third assignment to Viet Nam. As the Battalion S-3 and then the Battalion Executive Officer he was the only staff officer that appreciated my edge of the envelope solutions and saved my bacon with the desk jockey we had as a Battalion Commander, and with the brigade staff. The only other officer in the chain of command that supported me, and my somewhat unconventional ways, was the Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Smith (Black Jack 6). Also shown in the picture: the battalion S-2’s driver. He and his boss had driven where I told them not to drive and had run over a land mine. The S2, who was supposed to be my replacement starting on the 15th of October, was in pretty bad condition, evacuated to Ben Hua, but was able to return in late November. The Driver suffered shock, but not much more. Bob Montell had jumped on the Medical Evacuation helicopter, and was visiting the scene.

The Brigade had received intelligence that a North Vietnamese Battalion was operating in the area. This was a new development in the War. Only small detachments of NVA had been operating near Ben Hua and in the III Corps area of operation.

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 503rd Airborne Infantry were going to conduct an air assault deep into War Zone D—so deep there was no artillery support for the insertion unless an artillery battery was moved forward.

Realizing that airlifting an artillery battery would alert the NVA, and that it would take an infantry battalion to secure a landing zone, the Brigade S-3 decided to convoy eight kilometers into War Zone D.

War Zone D was the sole domain of the Viet Cong and had been since the French left 12 years earlier. The 173rd had enjoyed having an Australian infantry brigade, a 105mm Australian artillery battery, and a 105mm New Zealand artillery battery up until six weeks before this operation. All of the 173d Brigade Infantry and artillery units had deployed to Xuan Loc for the establishment of a new Australian headquarters in July. The 173rd Airborne Brigade, the newly established Australian brigade, and the Korean Tiger Division, returned to Ben Hua in early September. After 80 days on the move and in combat, and but two weeks until a change of command, I assumed I would not redeploy. Wrong! The 2nd Battalion Commander asked that C Battery, my battery, be the one to support the air assault.

Being one of the oldest captains in the Brigade, by virtue of date of rank, any time Charlie Battery deployed with a task force, I was the Task Force Commander. Anyway, early one morning the task force left Ben Hau for a 14 mile trip to the west and then 5-6 miles north to enter War Zone D. Sometime around 0900 Hours we crossed into the zone. Two miles in we lost a cavalry jeep, two engineer minesweeper troops and one cav troop KIA, one WIA (No Med Evacs were available until after we fired the artillery preparation scheduled 75 minutes out). We moved a cavalry jeep from the center of the convoy to the front, took the 50 caliber machine gun off of the wrecked jeep and told the battalion S2 to police up the KIAs in one of the ammo trucks before he let his portion of the convoy proceed.

About five minutes later the convoy was halted by a four-foot wide and four foot deep ditch dug across the roadway. There was enough room on one side of road to bypass the ditch. Engineers did their best to clear the mines, but we lost another two-man engineer team (both badly wounded) and the Fire Direction Center’s _ ton truck with the Fire Direction Center, FDC-tent, equipment, and men—one KIA and seven WIA, and one of the 2&_ ton trucks carrying ammunition. By the time we got back on the road we had two cav jeeps with 50s, one engineer minesweeper squad, my jeep with the Jump-FDC in a trailer, and six _-ton trucks hauling the six guns and 37 round of ammunition each. We had 30 minutes before time-on-target for firing the preparation for the landing zone for the Infantry.

I estimated that it would take 60 minutes to get the convoy, WIAs, and KIAs around the trench. I called Black Jack 6 and told him the situation. His response was, “I’ll brook no delays.”

I motioned for my driver to come up to where I was talking the cavalry lieutenant. He backed up the jeep to swing around the vehicle in front of him and the passenger-side tire of the trailer ran over a mine and blew the trailer straight up and then twisted it and the jeep into the ditch. The driver was not hurt, but the Jump-FDC was destroyed.

I jumped in one of the cav jeeps and directed the unit across country to the center of an old town which was on the map. Having a fairly precise location for the center of battery, I laid the guns with a compass placed on a rock, pointed the guns in right direction, set an elevation in mils and a charge amount I had memorized seven years ago at Fort Sill for charges and elevations for 4,000 and 6,000 meters. I fudged the elevations because the target for the first rounds was 5,600 meters (had to guess the distance by eyeball). We had four minutes before time-on-target. Given a 25 second flight time, we had three minutes and 35 seconds. We fired on time and the rounds were two hundred meters long. The aerial observer gave me a correction and we fired 10 three-guns along the north side of the LZ and 10 three-guns along the west side of the LZ. By the time the ammunition trucks caught up with the WIAs and KIAs, the air assault had begun. Meanwhile my FDC Lieutenant had pieced together the Fire Direction Center (even my footlocker from the trailer). By the time we received the first fire mission from the assault infantry battalion the FDC was functioning.

Shortly after the dust-offs arrived to evacuate the WIA’s and KIAs. Major Montel arrived with the first evacuation helicopter and left with the last one. I thought I had done something spectacular to fire a 120-round preparation using a compass and a pencil. Montel wasn’t impressed. He told me that he heard Black Jack Six say “He’d brook no delay” and knew I would figure a way to fire on time if I had to put the guns in a line on the road. Bob did go back to the Brigade S-3 and tell him that the artillery battalion was going to move their guns, ammunition, jeeps, gun trucks, and people out by helicopter. It was the Brigade S-3’s job to get the 2 Ton Trucks and damaged vehicles out of the Zone.

May 1966, North of Tai Ninh, near the Cambodian Border

As the commander of Charlie Battery, 319th Artillery, 173rd Airborne Brigade I was being treated to a Last Supper by the mess sergeant, who had concluded that I would be relived of my command and summarily shot for allowing my battery of six 105mm guns to lob 3,685 high explosive shells into Cambodia in violation of world-level peace accords, and a myriad of lesser orders and directives.

I couldn’t help myself. Charlie Battery was detailed in support of the 3rd ARVN Ranger Group, the commander of which had been in command since 1951 when the French were still a good bet.

Having been in charge of the 3rd Ranger Group for enough time to establish his own brand of tactics, he decided to take his rangers into Cambodia to raid an NVA supply depot. He took 13 of Charlie Battery’s recon personnel including three officers—US Army personnel. One mile inside Cambodia the ARVN Rangers attacked the NVA supply depot and I decided to fire my guns in support of the artillery recon GIs calling for fire.

I evacuated the Fire Direction Center of all personnel, placed a blanket over the map so no one else would know where I was firing, and spent the night pounding Cambodia. The morning brought success with the Ranger Group reporting several hundred NVA killed and captured. Charlie Battery was credited with causing 2,000+ secondary explosions. How anyone could keep track is a mystery but that wasn’t the real problem. With that many rounds fired and that many secondary explosions it’s hard to keep the paper people from finding out what you did.

Sure enough, at first light I was relieved of my command by my battalion commander. Four hours later my brigade commander, Black Jack 6 himself, rehired me. Just when I thought I had done a shit-hot job the III Corps Commander flew in and relieved me of my command again.

That’s when the mess sergeant set the table for the Last Supper complete with napkins and the like—aspirin as well. Knowing I saved a good many lives the night before I sat waiting for Major Bob Montel, my S-3, to sort out the mess. Bob had the ranking Special Forces officer in Southeast Asia talk to the powers that be and Westmorland’s Deputy Commander flew into the battery’s location and rehired me on the spot.

I still have the glasses. They must be good luck. The stateside fatigues don’t fit anymore. That was Vietnam’s war.