Monday, April 23, 2012

April Fools Day 1970




April Fool’s Day   1970

by
Max Diamond

1


        I was looking forward to life as a civilian after four long years in the Army, the bulk of my time having been spent as a “tanker” in Germany.  The last 10 months of my commitment I rode with the 1st platoon of "A" Troop 2/1 Cavalry Regiment in South Vietnam.   SFC. Kofalvi, or just “K” as he was known, was platoon leader, and I came to respect him as the finest sergeant I encountered during my entire time in the Army.  
      The rumor was that K had escaped the Russian army in the sixties, made his way to West Germany, joined the U.S. Army and volunteered for duty in Vietnam.  The troopers of the 1st platoon always figured he was a Cossack, which 40 years later I learned he is actually Hungarian.  I could only recall a couple memorable snippets of conversations we had. The first, I had asked him what the hell he was doing over here, having risked his life to get to the war zone.  His answer was simple and straight forward...."to take care of young fools like you"!  
       I was always a headache for K, beginning with an incident where he had me flown up to Pleiku for the in-country track commander’s school, which, upon completion, I would be promoted to sergeant and in line for a tank commander’s job.  I had made sergeant in Germany, however, I was AWOL (absent without leave) when the orders for promotion came down.  The Captain called me into his office, the bright yellow sergeant stripes plainly visible on his desk, chewed me out, gave me the “oh what a disappointment you are” speech, then tore up the promotion orders.     
       Pleiku, Vietnam was a wonderment for a new arrival like me, with the sing song vocals of the population rising above the clamor of small motorbikes and bell ringing pedicabs.   As a veteran of the Army’s counterculture in Germany, I immediately went AWOL and headed for the fabled opium dens of Southeast Asia.  Using one of my favorite techniques of jumping in and out of 5 ton trucks that appeared to be heading for the front gate, my first attempt paid off.  I was whisked out of the perimeter and in a short dusty ride, found myself somewhere in the heart of Pleiku city.   When the truck slowed for traffic, I took the opportunity to jump onto the crowded street, causing bikes to swerve and unleashing a slew of what was probably Vietnamese profanity. 
       Picking myself up, the invigorating rush of joy surging through my whole being, I savored the moment;  A free spirit again.   In Germany too, the thrill of the escape was addictive.  One felt light, energetic and full of adrenalin on every sortie outside the gate.   Here in Pleiku, I was oblivious to the war going on around me, so taken by the new colors, sounds and smells of the city.  Folks were friendly and accessible and I was soon led to a very popular den, only yards from where I had leapt out of the truck.  
         I was met at the door by an elderly Mamasan with a wide grin of gold teeth and empty sockets, stained red by years of chewing betel nuts.  She led me to an altar where sat a statuette of Buddha, surrounded by candles and small vessels that each contained a single opium joint.   She motioned for me to bow to Buddha and help myself to a smoke, whereby I was led further into the musty netherworld of the den.  I was shown to a plain wooden bench with an end table and a single candle.  As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could see several prone figures and wisps of smoke curling in the candlelight, the austere quiet of the moment broken by the giggles of a couple young gals, arriving with ice cold beer and an opium pipe. 
        When I finally made my way back to school, a day or so later, I was immediately kicked out and shipped back to the field...where a disgusted K told me to "throw your crap on that tank over there", and away went the sergeants stripes for a second time. 

                                                                 "K"

                                    2
                                                                
Firebase Panzer




Firebase Panzer II
       
        I climbed up on the tank and got a pretty good look at my new home, Firebase “Panzer”.  The French had built a mineral water bottling factory here.  There was a water tank, high on stilts, a small building and a wonderful open air, warm mineral water pool. The perimeter, maybe sixty or eighty yards in diameter, felt secure with its rings of concertina, trip wires, and plenty of strategically placed and concealed claymore mines.  Inside the wire, a ring of alternating Tanks and APC's (Armored Personnel Carriers) completed a circle around the perimeter, packing tremendous firepower. There was also a platoon of  the 1/50 Mechanized Artillery with their skyward pointing 105’s. A variety of “hooches” built of empty ammo boxes and sandbags filled out the scene.  For the exception of a few occasional mortar rounds, the NVA or VC never attempted a direct assault on Firebase Panzer.
                                                         Firebase Panzer
                                                   Courtesy Richard A. Rajner

       Each platoon consisted of three Tanks and seven APC's, with three or four souls aboard each vehicle. One of the APC's was the designated mortar track and carried an 81 mm. mortar and crew.  The tanks were M-48's of Korean War vintage, rather than the modern (then) M-60 and M-60A1's.  For the exception of the mortar track, the M-113 APC's carry two .30 caliber machine guns and one .50 caliber turret mounted machine gun operated by the Track Commander.  The tanks carry a 90 mm. main gun, a .30 caliber at the loaders' hatch and a .50 caliber mounted on the Tank Commanders turret.   "A" troop was charged with keeping a section of Highway One clear of mines and escorting convoys of fuel and supplies along their designated stretch of road, between Phan Rang to the north and Song Mao to the south.  
        Sitting there on top of the Tank, I noticed a knot of troopers standing a ways off, chatting anxiously and occasionally glancing over my way.  After a time, one individual broke out of the group, sauntered coolly over and asked straight up, “are you a Narc?”   I looked this dude over, with his shaggy blonde hair, beads, sunglasses, and sporting a bushy mustache. I laughed the question off and he must have felt comfortable with that, as the next words out of his mouth were, “ya got any grass?”      
        “Wolfmans” eyes bulged when I dug a carton of Marlboro’s out of my duffel bag.  I had picked up this little gem while shopping in Pleiku.  What appeared to be a sealed carton of cigarettes had actually been remanufactured by the clever Vietnamese.  Wolfman was beside himself saying the guys had been out of grass for a week.  The 1st platoon had been stuck for too long guarding the perimeter, unable to get out on the highway and pay Mamasan a visit.  He was in store for another surprise when I removed the cellophane, opened the foil tab and pulled out a perfectly repacked Cambodian Red joint.  Wolfman blurted out a long string of happy profanity when he saw that these were the deluxe model…not so easily obtained in the field…all two hundred had been opium dipped!  The paranoia evaporated and I was quickly introduced to all the stone heads in the platoon. Out of the fifty or so members of the 1st platoon, the stoners outnumbered the beer drinkers 3 to 1.  This worked out very well for all, as the freaks traded off their beer rations for soda pop, resulting in a harmonious, symbiotic relationship within the platoon.   I was amused how a beer loving K would feign disgust at these stoned kids, when he happily traded off a case of pop for a case of beer.  But as I got to know him more over our time together, it became obvious that he loved these kids like they were his own.   
        The party went late into the night, punctuated with a dip now and then into the warm mineral pool.  There came a point when Wolfman, after a long stoney stare at me, slurred out a “you look like Liverache”!  From that night on, my name was “Liver”.  No one, not even K ever called me by my real name and it was soon forgotten.   As close as Wolfman and I became, and all the crap we went through together, I never knew the Wolfman’s real name either.  

                                                                     3      

        That first night I learned I was one of the very few lower grade individuals with the RA (Regular Army) prefix to my serial number.   The vast majority of my new found friends carried the US prefix (Property of the U.S. Government).  The former meaning I had voluntarily walked into a recruiter’s office in 1966 during the heated build-up of the Vietnam War, and enlisted in the Army.  My compatriots, carrying the US dog tag, had been drafted.    
        At first glance, one might get the impression I had some patriotic motivated fervor back then.  The simple truth was I, along with most everyone else chose their own personal method of survival in those years.  Some of my friends bolted for Canada.  Some figured just do the least amount of time and get drafted.  Some tried to hide in school or use other avoidance schemes, but one way or another, young men from all walks of life were caught up in the War in Vietnam.
        1966 found me less than a year out of high school, working at McDonalds and on the verge of being drafted.  The draft was like the modern day version of the rapture...where people around you just up and disappear.   In a major departure from scripture however, the raptured in those years had to take a tour through hell, to get where they were going.
       I, along with a friend, Clyde, who also worked at the Big M, with just over its first million served, decided to enlist in the Army and avoid the draft.  We made this pact just before the noon hour rush while I was toasting buns and Clyde was cooking meats.  As the crowd swelled in front of the counter, the store manager and his wife showed up for lunch.  Of course, on their appearance at the front of the line, all the employees jumped to their best behavior mode.  
       Next to my bun toaster was Clyde with twenty or so sizzling meat patties in front of him and we were making burgers at a feverish pace.   Clyde threw a devilish glance my way, accompanied by a wide grin, telling me something was up.  I watched as Clyde deftly separated a half dozen or so patties from their waxed paper layers and with cupped hands, made a perfectly round ball of hamburger meat.  
        The manager’s eyes, after carefully surveying the workings of his establishment, fell on the cooks at the grill and toaster.  Up came the ball of meat in Clyde’s outstretched hand, in plain view for the manager, his wife, and all the customers.  He displayed the meatball as though it were a fine diamond for all to admire, and a quizzical look came over the managers’ face.  I was still trying, along with everyone else, to figure out what was up, when he lifted his elbow high, exposing the large underarm sweat patch and a little hair peeking out from under his white, short sleeve shirt.
        The managers’ face was already red when the meatball found itself in the armpit and that elbow came down hard, flattening the meat into a perfect jumbo patty.  As the patty came slamming down on the grill, I was desperately trying not to pee my pants, laughing so hard.  The customers were streaming for the doors and the manager, his face now an overripe tomato, pointing at the back door screaming at the cooks to “get out”!  Clyde and I drove straight to the recruiters and signed on the dotted line, enlisting in the U.S. Army, and avoiding the imminent draft.  Actually it was more like a plea deal where the two recruits offered up four years of their lives and in exchange, we were guaranteed duty in Europe, as far away from the War we could get.
         A few weeks later found Clyde and I at the induction center in Seattle.  We entered a very large, dirty gray building on the waterfront, where a few well dressed and armed MP’s (Military Police) directed us into a great hall reeking of sweat and the nervous uncertainty of a multitude of young men.  The mood was somber, with anxiety and fear weaving its way through the humanity.  A chill came over me as I began asking myself “what the hell have I done?”   What occurred next was the single most important event coloring the next four years of my life in the Army. 
        A smartly dressed Army sergeant, followed by two individuals, representatives of the Navy and Marines, marched stiffly into the throng; the sergeant silenced the crowd with a booming order to get up against the wall, packing the mass of bodies tightly together on one side of the hall.  Right away Clyde and I were singled out along with a couple hundred or so other individuals who had voluntarily enlisted, and separated from the throng.  The sergeant then centered himself in front of the remaining crowd, numbering well over a thousand draftees, stretched his arm out toward them and, as if cutting a pie with a knife, divided the mass into three arbitrarily separated groups.  Satisfied with his work, he walked past each group barking “You’re in the Army, you’re in the Navy, you’re in the Marines”. 
        Frozen with fear? Stunned? Helpless? What words to describe the innermost reaction to the display of absolute power….The power of life and death…meted out at that moment with military precision.   The blood draining, a clammy shock comes over me as I looked over that third group.   Everyone in the building that morning knew, induction into the Marines in 1966, was very likely a death sentence.  In that moment I made a personal vow, the Army had my body, they would never get my mind.

                                                                               4       


Driving Tank over rough terrain taking care not to bugger the Main Gun sights

        Life in the 1st platoon under K was not bad.  We were fortunate to not have an officer in the platoon, allowing for more relaxed, casual routines, and the military dress code was pretty much scrapped.   Being in the Cavalry had its advantages as well.  The vehicles could carry all the provisions and ammo needed for extended days on patrol, which had the infantry beat all to hell…They could only pack what they could carry on their backs.  Most infantrymen had to pack extra ammo for their machine gunner or maybe mortar rounds plus their own personal weapon, ammo, grenades, and a small amount of personal items.    From the view atop my 45 ton bullet proof motorhome, cruising down the highway at 20 or 30 mph, a fifty caliber ammo box handy, chockablock full of green buds….the sight of the infantry heading off on foot into the jungle made me feel very fortunate indeed.    
"Ambush Alley" courtesy Col. Samuel Myers


Swim Call at Ambush Alley

        1st platoon spent the days patrolling the section of Highway One north of FB Panzer stretching 50 miles to Phan Rang AFB.  Escorting convoys of fuel and supply trucks through “Ambush Alley” and sweeping for mines that were constantly being buried in the potholes; Usually a pressure detonated US 105 mm. artillery dud that the VC would gather up and use against us.  (“A” Troop never encountered anything like a 500 or 750 lb. bomb as happened on occasion during the war).  A tank would always take the lead in the column followed by a couple of the APC’s then another tank followed by APC’s with the third tank bringing up the rear.  Quite often the lead tank would drive over a mine and detonate it, but no one suffered injuries when this occurred.  Mostly, if there was any damage, one of the tracks would be blown off.  Occasionally, we would get intelligence that a section of road had been mined.  In that situation, one trooper would walk in front of the lead tank, sweeping with the mine detector.  On hearing higher pitched, faster beeping as the sweeper’s dish passes over a pothole, the trooper brushes away some dirt and inevitably reveals the metal casing of the round.  A healthy chunk of C4 plastic explosive is placed on the round, a blasting cap is stuck in the C4 and the wire is run back to the waiting tank.  The troopers “button up” and set off the explosive, destroying the mine.   For the most part, small cars, motor bikes and even small trucks would not be heavy enough to set off the mines. 
          At night, the platoon would “lager up” forming a perimeter of alternating vehicles backed up to each other, with all weapons pointing outward from the circle. The mortar track would then set up their weapon and each vehicle would keep a guard up throughout the night.   K was an expert at setting up the platoon in positions that were difficult, if not downright impossible to attack.  1st platoon never suffered a single attack during my 10 months with K.  In fact, during my stint with the 1st platoon, we never lost a single soul.
          There came a time when a new Captain arrived on the scene and took over command of “A” troop.  Life changed almost immediately when he ordered all dogs removed from the perimeter.  My little pup “Speedo” along with maybe twenty or so of A Troops’ best guards were sent packing, the young puppies most likely wound up on local dinner tables in the area.   This did a lot to piss the troopers off and drive down morale.  Those dogs raised a ruckus whenever there was movement or sounds outside the wire.  He also made the mineral pool “off-limits” to soaking, which dropped his popularity to zero…the stoners of the 1st platoon pretty much ignored that order and could invariably be found smoking and joking in the pool at 3 or 4 in the morning while the Captain slept.
"Speedo"


Breaking camp in the a.m.



Buying Grass and Girlfriends on the Road with Mamasan before returning to the perimeter

         It was soon after that when Wolfman and Liver ran afoul of the Captain.  They were on one those long stints behind the wire, guarding firebase Panzer when the 1st platoon ran out of grass.  They conjured up a scheme to get to Cam Rahn Bay, and remedy the situation.   Another dude, “Hackett” joined the conspiracy and the trio caught a “Shithook” (CH-47 Chinook Helicopter) to Phan Rang AFB and on up to Cam Rahn AFB.  
        A couple months earlier, during one of these dry spells, Liver had fabricated a successful bogus trip to Phan Rang AFB and scored a couple of kilo’s.  The trip only had one quirky moment where he was trying to catch a convoy ride out of the airbase back to FB Panzer and no sooner got his thumb out when a couple Air Force MP’s in a jeep picked him up.  They were amused and chatty with this scruffy individual, covered with road dirt and packing a .45 caliber sub-machine gun.  They don’t often see individuals just wandering off the base and heading alone down the highway on foot, straight into enemy territory.  Liver was sweating bullets in the back seat, not knowing what the hell to do. He was way more afraid of these guys than Charlie at this moment.  He kept up the banter, and managed to scoop out one of the bags in his trousers and stuff it under the seat.  He was about to pull out another bag when the jeep passed through the gate and they let him out.  “Well soldier, you’re on your own” they waved, and turned back into the base.  On his return to the platoon, the sting of losing the bag to the MP’s was worth its weight in laughs.   
        On arrival at Cam Rahn AFB the trio made a beeline for the main airport and contacted a Mamasan they knew was dealing there, scoring several kilos of fine Cambodian Red, always a favorite with the 1st platoon!  As they came out of the station, dungarees bulging, a monsoon started dumping heavy and they dashed underneath the stage of the outdoor theater for cover.  Huddled there out of the rain, digging excitedly through the packages and rolling up a fat one, they failed to notice what was happening around them.    
        Hackett gave out a yelp and the trio saw the wheels of jeeps and boots hitting the ground surrounding them.  They madly dumped all the packages into a pile and cleaned out their pockets in the few moments they had, as the MP’s ducked under the stage and told them to “come outa there”!  The three were lined up and searched immediately.  Wolfman had a joint in his jacket pocket which he had missed, and was told to sit in the jeep.  Liver still had a bunch of loose stuff in his pockets and took a seat as well.   Hackett, amazingly, was clean as a whistle, not a crumb…and they let him walk away, right then and there.

                                                                  "Hackett"


       The MP’s gathered up the evidence and Wolfman and Liver were taken off to jail, processed and put in a cell. The following day they were flown back to the perimeter to face the Captain.   Standing there in the Captains’ hooch, along with K and his now familiar look of disgust, Liver and Wolfman had a stare down with a glowering Troop Commander, who was about to make an example of them.
         "Wolfman"
                                                                
                                                                       
                                 5
        The Captain broke the tension by announcing he intended to have them courts-marshaled and sent to Long Binh jail.   “LBJ”, where one does hard time…which is also bad time.  In other words, when you get out of jail, you stay in Vietnam until your year is up, not counting your time at LBJ.  Further, as an added caveat, the pair would be subjected to extra duty until trial.                          
      For the next 30 days while awaiting trial, Wolfman and Liver hauled and burned garbage, filled sand bags, and took charge of the latrine.  The latter was a particularly nasty job.  The latrine was a 16 seater with half a fifty-five gallon drum under each seat.   This daily chore (after the morning rush of roughly 200 artillery, infantry and cavalrymen) involved pulling out each drum, pouring in a few gallons of diesel, a little gas, and lighting it off.  The troopers stand there, heavy black clouds of putrid smoke swirling around them, stirring with a stick until only ash is left. 
        Wolfman and Liver were closing in on their fourth week of doing whatever crappy detail the Captain could think up, and still no trial in sight.  Trial?  The troopers were convinced it would be a kangaroo court, the outcome a foregone conclusion.  As the thirty day mark approached, even though no trial date had been set, the day had huge significance for Liver.  
      Wolfman was in a particularly depressed, surly mood as he stood with Liver, stirring shit in the 90 degree heat of Vietnam, waiting to be sent to jail.  Liver, on the other hand was unusually animated, happy, as he went waltzing from drum to drum, dancing with his stir stick, making grand ballroom moves.   
      The antics served to agitate a sullen Wolfman into asking Liver what the hell he was so happy about, to which Liver gleefully announced that today his letter to the Adjutant General (AG) goes in the mail and we would soon turn the tables on the Captain.  Liver explained, to an extremely skeptical Wolfman, that he had written to the AG claiming, in view of the fact we had just completed 30 days of extra duty labor, this should be considered punishment, and to take us to trial now would be double jeopardy.
       The entire week found Wolfman pissed off at Liver and grumbling about how screwed they were, when the morning came that the AG’s office answered Livers’ letter.  The answer came in the form of a Huey landing outside the wire, a young first lieutenant hopped out and walked into the perimeter.
       He glanced at Wolfman and Liver, standing with their stir sticks and smoking drums, as he walked by and headed for the Captains' hooch.  He disappeared from sight and right away, the radioman, who always had ears on the Captain, came by and said “that chopper’s from the AG’s office”!   Wolfman immediately went ballistic and lit into Liver, his stick waving wildly, shit flying, cussing the world.   Liver was ecstatic and laughing, dodging the shit and trying to explain that this had to be a good thing! 
Andy Minor...Radioman!

      The troopers were soon called to the Captains hooch, where Liver observed the air was thick with tension between the two officers.  The first to speak was the young lieutenant, turning to the Captain saying “I’d like to speak to these men alone” in the tone of a curt order, rather than a polite request.  The Captain was effectively ejected from his own hooch by the lower grade officer and shot daggers at Liver as he departed.   The Captain outranks the first lieutenant, however the office the lieutenant represents reduces the Captain to the rank of a pissant.
     With the Captain gone, the lieutenant invited the two troopers to have a seat and started off by thanking Liver for the letter.   He said the AG’s office agreed 30 days extra duty was ample punishment and it was correct to assert that a trial at this point would be unfair.  The dark cloud surrounding Wolfman disappeared, his eyes lit up and that big grin of his returned.  The lieutenant  added he personally had no problem with marijuana.                                                                                          
        With that statement, Liver took a closer look into the eyes of this young lieutenant.  The twinkle there told a story and it took little imagination to see this fellow a couple years ago, attending law school, listening to Jim Morrison and the Doors, long hair, sandals, smoking homegrown leaf and facing the draft.  He was one of us.


                                                     Convoy escort on Highway "1"


          Convoy escort II and setting up a blocking force on the edge of the jungle      

                                                   6.
 
Setting up the Mortar Track in preparation for a night in the rice paddy
 


  By now it was December 1969, and Liver was getting “short”, only a little over three months left in Vietnam…and the Army.   As long as the 1st platoon was on the road, away from the Captain, life returned to normal.  Whenever the platoon returned to Firebase Panzer however, situations would arise where Liver felt he was being targeted by the Captain.
          The first of these instances, when the Captain ordered him to blow up the train station, Liver really never suspected anything.  FB Panzer had been taking mortar rounds on a nightly basis, and the Captain decided the VC were using the water tower at the abandoned building a mile or so distant, to direct fire.  This type of responsibility would normally fall on the shoulders of a junior officer or, at a minimum, the sergeant in charge of a squad, not the troops’ most notorious clown.    It really never crossed his mind that the Captain might be putting him in a very dangerous, possibly deadly situation intentionally.  No, Liver loved to blow stuff up, and went after the task with abandon.    

       Rummaging around in the perimeters’ ammo dump, Liver was like a kid in a toy store.  First, he went for two cases of TNT and three cases of C-4 plastic explosive.   He then topped the pile off with a 5000 ft. roll of det cord.  Detonation cord is plastic tubing packed with C-4, a versatile explosive tool, and delightful plaything.  Liver was familiar with the structure; a two story cinder block building 50 ft. square, and calculated his pile of high-explosives was more than adequate to accomplish the job.  The TNT he found so irresistible, another case was added to the pile for good measure.

         The squad, consisting of a tank and three APC’s, first cleared the area of any immediate threats after which they dismounted and searched the building.  Signs of recent activity around the tower confirmed the theory that it was indeed an observation post.  To Livers’ delight, a small room was discovered under the building, the perfect spot to plant a charge.  The cases of TNT and C-4 were offloaded and piled up in the little six by six space.   Liver tied an end of the det cord to the explosives, then sent the spool out the door with another trooper who started running around the building, taking about twenty wraps.  The remainder of the spool was wedged into the bomb, whereupon Liver opened one of the cases, wired two blasting caps together and stuck them deep into a brick of C-4.  He backed out of the hole, reeling off the wire until he reached his tank, about 30 yards from the building.  

       Liver wired in the clacker (a device that sends an electrical charge down the wire and makes a “clacking” noise when squeezed.  A ubiquitous item, commonly used for deploying the claymore mines) climbed into the drivers’ seat and buttoned the hatch.   Peering through the periscope, he had a clear picture of the building and word came over the radio that all vehicles were secured.





      A ring of exploding black smoke puffed out around the structure when Liver squeezed the clacker, followed by a thundering roar and the ground shaking the tank like a strong earthquake.  The entire building appeared to lift three or four feet straight up, hung there for a moment, then collapsed into a dusty, smoking pile of rubble.


      On the squads return to FB Panzer, Liver was summoned to the Captains’ hooch where he endured a verbal whiplashing from an irate troop commander.  The Captain wasted no time tearing into Liver for his wasteful use of explosives and for the earth shaking explosion felt at the perimeter over a mile away. (for clarification, 8 sticks of C-4, 2 in each corner of the structure, tied together with 200 ft. of det cord would have accomplished the task!) Behind his hangdog mask, Liver beamed with satisfaction as he counted to himself;.......Liver 2………Captain 0
                                                   "Liver"
                                      
                                  7

 Rice Harvest
                                                                          
      The approach of the New Year saw a new twist in the tactics employed in the defense of FB Panzer.  The Captain initiated a program of sending three man foot patrols “outside the wire” (perimeter) every night.  The cavalrymen had no use for this foot patrol business, especially when we had a platoon of the 173rd Airborne camped in the perimeter.  Those boys were trained and seasoned for that sort of work.

     Liver had been stuck with the patrol duty twice that week and was looking forward to a night of celebration.  With at least a hundred “A” troopers available for the duty, there was no way he would be chosen a third time.   Comfortable in that knowledge, the early afternoon of New Year’s Eve found Liver wandering over to an artillery track of the 1/50th  , cracking a beer, firing up a joint and enjoying the hospitality of his mechanized artillery neighbors.  Their rigs were roomier than the tanks and well suited for inconspicuous smoke-outs with a bunch of compatriots.

     By early evening, Liver and friends were roaring drunk and stoned when the arrival of an “A” troop 2nd lieutenant interrupted the festivities. It was just getting dark when this unwelcome guest (new to the troop, right out of ROTC) ordered Liver to take out the patrol.

     Liver flatly refused the order on grounds he had the duty twice that week and was drunk on his ass.  The lieutenant stood firm and again ordered Liver to take the patrol out.  Anger surged through Liver; he grabbed his M-16, jumped out of the track and headed for the Captains’ hooch.  There was no way he was going outside the wire with a couple of green troops tonight.  

     Liver could hear the lieutenants’ footsteps right on his heels, almost feel his breath on the back of his neck, when he wheeled around with a wild roundhouse and the officer went down.  Liver never broke stride and continued on for the Captains’ hooch.  Nearly out of his mind in a drunken rage, he stormed in on the Captain, hardly getting a couple words out when the lieutenant burst in the door behind him.  Liver swung around, jamming the barrel of his M-16 in the lieutenants’ belly and continued his drunken rant, refusing to obey the order.  Before the confrontation had a chance to escalate further, which could only have been disastrous, K came on the scene.

    “Put the rifle down and take the patrol out Liver” K said in a cool, stern voice.  Liver dropped the rifle, said “ok sarge” and headed for the door.  He went sober in that moment, his respect for K ran deep and the responsibility outside the wire was enormous.

     Liver gathered up the two green troops, and headed out of the perimeter into the New Year’s night.   One of the youngsters, a freckle faced teenager, his fatigues still starchy and clean, seemed way out of place, leaving Liver feeling the burden of his task.

     The trio moved up the hill on FB Panzers’ south side.  Liver got away from anything that looked like a trail and set the boys to digging in deep.  They didn’t stray too far from the perimeter, a hundred yards at most, choosing a brushy patch for concealment.  Liver wanted to minimize the possibility of contact with Charlie and be within scrambling distance of the safety of the wire.  He was well aware that when the midnight hour arrived, all hell would break loose.  FB Panzer was a heavily armed party scene, ready to ring in the New Year.

       Cavalrymen normally look at foxholes with some disdain, but tonight, knowing how much lead would be in the air, they dug a hole any infantryman would be proud of.  The three troopers settled in, looking forward to the midnight hour with some trepidation when the stillness of the evening was shattered by an explosion in the perimeter.  Liver thought it odd when he checked the time, someone had jumped the gun 10 minutes early. At midnight, all hell did break loose and the three troopers hunkered down in their hole, the land and sky lit up with parachute flares, tracers whizzing overhead and thunderous explosions. Then as quickly as it began, all went quiet, one by one the parachute flares fizzled out and the starlit darkness returned.

      With dawn, Liver hurried the patrol back to the safety of the perimeter and wasted no time in satisfying his curiosity about the early explosion.  That, it turned out, was not part of the celebration, rather it was a grenade, rolled into a tent in the 173rd camp.  Liver was disturbed by this “fragging” incident, alerted to the possibility that unlike this unknown assailants’ crude attempt with a grenade in the 173rd, the troop commander could be doing the same with him right out in the open.  Looking back at the train station detail, now the repeated trips outside the wire at night, Liver made a note to himself, he better watch his step around the Captain.

                                                                   8                              


Dismounted Cavalry




Dismounted Cavalry II



        A month or more passed, Liver had gone to Sydney, Australia on his seven day R&R and returned to the 1st platoon and the routines of life on Highway 1.  He hadn't heard a word of the New Years’ debacle, which was surprising…maybe the cooling off period on was timely. 

     Liver had less than two months in the Army when he was summoned to the Captains’ hooch.  It is never a good thing to be summoned to the Captains’ hooch, especially for Liver, and he feared the worst.  Nearly out of the Army and he was going to jail.  “Bad Time?  How much bad time?...What are the charges?....Striking an officer?...Refusing a direct order? …Threatening the s.o.b.?”....Livers’ mind was racing as he stooped through the door.

     The heavily fortified hooch was claustrophobic and suffocating.   The room was dimly lit; K was there, as well as the 2nd lieutenant and of course, the Captain.  Liver threw a nervous glance at K and then focused on the Captains’ eyes for clues as to what was to come.  Without warning the Captain made a lighting fast move, throwing a rifle, hard, which a startled Liver caught defensively to keep from being knocked down.   He looked down at this lightweight beauty; it appeared to be some super slick, chopped down M-16.

         Liver looked back the Captain, sitting there at his desk, smiling.  He looked over at K, standing there, snickering.  Liver even looked at an expressionless lieutenant for a clue as to what was up.  He had never seen the Captain smile, ever.  He let his eyes fall back to the rifle, and waited for whatever was coming next.

         “It’s an AR-15, do you want it?”  Unthinking, Liver jumped at the bait.  “Sure!” as he rolled the weapon around in his hands, toying with the receiver.  “Join my LRRP team (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) and it’s yours”. 

    The rifle was in the air, flying back at the Captain, and Liver was out the door before the Captain caught it.  It happened that fast.  “What kind of fool does he think I am?”  “A few weeks left in the Army, in this hell hole, and I’m gonna’ leave the safety of my tank to go on foot into the jungle, looking for a gunfight?...Hah!”

  
                                                              9
       Livers’ day finally came when it was time to say goodbye to the 1st platoon. By this time, Wolfman and many of his tightest friends had rotated out.  “Liver, or whatever the fuck your name is, you better stay in the Army…you’ll never make it on the outside!”  Those were K’s final words as he shook hands with a Liver who was laughing K’s remark off with a ”you gotta be fuckin’ kidding sarge!”  With that, Liver jumped off K’s tank and onto a convoy vehicle that would take him to Song Mao.                  


       On arriving, he threw his gear into a mortar track parked adjacent to the squadron’s ammo dump. With the coming morning, April 1st, he would get the Captains’ signature and head over to Squadron Headquarters to turn in his M-16 and find his way to Cam Rahn Bay, where he would catch a plane home.

       “A” troop was tasked with guarding the unfinished ammo dump.  The dump was a five foot berm about a hundred feet by fifty feet, chockablock full of everything an air cavalry unit required.  The dump however, had not had the reinforced lid added yet; it was lacking a cover with at a minimum, three or four layers of sandbags on top.

       Early evening found Liver and friends atop a tank smoking, joking, and drinking beer with lots of toasting his rotation out of the Army.  By midnight, the knot of troopers on the tank, numbering ten or so, were startled by a mortar attack on the MACV compound less than a mile away.  The group had a perfect view, as from the position of the tank at the corner of the ammo dump, the main gun was looking directly at the attack.


      Someone made the remark that he thought the mortars were getting closer, and the rowdy bunch on the tank started joking and arguing the point.  They were “poohaawing” all the way until the mortars were landing in the wire right in front of them, then they scattered for their vehicles. The boys whose tank they were on, jumped in and buttoned up. 


         The mortars were coming in the perimeter heavy as Liver jumped off the tank and ran for the mortar track.  By the time he reached the track, it seemed as though a whole line of mortar rounds had walked across the perimeter, and as he threw himself into the open hatch, the shelling was walking back over the perimeter again. He landed on a whole pile of troopers down there, all covering up as best they could.


         The track took a hit on the next volley and shook furiously.  Nothing to do but keep their heads down as the shells kept coming, seeking out the ammo dump. Liver had been through the occasional mortar attack, he had never witnessed anything of this magnitude…and cursed the fact that he had chosen to stash his stuff right next to the target.


         There came a lull in the shelling whereby Liver and another trooper on top of the pile hopped up to see what was happening, and what was happening was a fire, right in front of them in the dump.  Liver and the other trooper jumped out with fire extinguishers running to the top of the berm, where they started spraying the burning ammo boxes.  They almost had an effect on the flames when the black powder charges inside caught fire with a hissing whoosh!  Livers’ eye caught the WP in bold letters on the side of the box and yelled “Willy Peter…let’s get the hell outa here!” The box contained white phosphorus mortar rounds and the black powder was already going off. 


    The two jumped off the berm and ran back to the mortar track yelling for everyone to “get outa there, the dumps going up!”  On running back, Liver noticed the hit the vehicle had taken had blown the track off…they were lucky that round just didn’t come right in on top of them through the open hatch.  The troopers poured out of the track and ran off in several directions, most heading for the bunker on the opposite side of the perimeter.


      Liver took off at a dead run for the bunker with the group through another barrage of mortar rounds and was the last one to dive in.  The bunker, actually a sandbagged six foot steel culvert, open at both ends, was crammed tight with guys.  Liver felt fortunate he was on the end where he had some breathing room and a clear view of the ammo dump.


     The fire in the dump was growing fast, when Liver saw two figures running with fire extinguishers directly at the dump.  As they climbed up on the berm, right where he and the other trooper had just been, there was a gigantic explosion.  Liver saw the two bodies silhouetted in the fireball and thrown a good distance off the berm.  Amazingly, one of the figures jumped straight up and ran off.  The other individual didn’t move.


     Liver heard someone yell “don’t go out there!”  behind him as he raced for the body.  He ran as hard as he could for the prone figure when there was another explosion in the dump and he saw his feet go out in front of him, felt a searing slash across his neck and landed flat on his back.


      Dazed, on his back, his mind went over his body for damage but he felt okay…just that pain where he felt his neck was slashed.  His eyes then focused directly above him and he saw the thin guy wire for the Captains’ tent, still humming.


    Adrenalin popped him back to his feet and had him to the motionless figure as the dump let go another horrific explosion.  Liver grabbed an arm hard, to put the body on his back when the person regained consciousness…the two locked eyes…it was the Captain!


    “Are you ok?” Liver yelled over the din of exploding ammo “get outa here!” was the reply and they bolted in their separate directions, the Captain for his track and Liver back to the culvert.  The whole world was blowing up and Liver saw his feet in the air out on front of him, felt the searing, slashing pain across his neck and landed flat on his back.   The guy wire twanging again, Liver hopped to his feet, cussing the wire and ran for the culvert. Another explosion and he felt a hot pain in his leg as the shard of a blown out 90mm casing hit him and bounced away, just as he dove back into the culvert headfirst. 


       In the bunker the troopers could only sit and wait it out, while the battle raged and the ammo dump blew.  It was up to the boys in the vehicles on the perimeter to keep everyone safe now, and they did, stopping the sapper attack at the wire. 


      The ammo blew all night, a tremendous show of firepower run amuck.  Liver had a front row seat and passed information down the line from his end of the culvert. Mostly, he spent the night reporting over and over ad nauseam that he had four days left in the Army punctuated by a lot of cussing at the exploding dump.


       The dump continued to cook off until mid-morning, when at long last the troopers were able to emerge.  Rounds were still going off intermittently when Liver went to gather his bag and rifle.  He sifted through the burned out remains of the still smoldering mortar track and came up with the barrel of an M-16.   He didn’t even know whose it was, and didn’t care, as long as he had a rifle, or at least a part of one, to turn in.  The Army has its rules, and not turning in a rifle would bugger his chances of getting out smoothly.  There was nothing else salvageable in the hulk.   He pulled off his t-shirt, bandaged the bloody mess that was his knee and went off to the Captains’ makeshift office, where he found him sitting at his desk, the supply sergeant standing close by his side.  The sounds of war raging in the background and rounds still cooking off in the dump, the Captain pulled out Livers’ rotation orders and put the pen to them.


      He slid the orders across his desk; Liver picked them up and stuck his hand out.  The Captain didn’t say a word, did not smile, and did not offer his hand.  Just a cold stare was all Liver got.  The supply sergeant stuck his hand out, interrupting the awkwardness of the moment saying “Liver, you’re all right in my book”.  Liver shook the sergeants’ hand and smiled “so long sarge, take care of yourself”, and he meant it, he liked the supply sergeant and they had always got along real good.  Without another word spoken, or a salute, Liver turned his back on the Captain and headed for the gate.  His tour with “A” troop at was over.


     Livers’ task now was to make his way to Squadron Headquarters, turn in his weapon, get the Colonels’ signature, and then find a way to Cam Rahn Bay.  He jumped on a tank and headed toward Song Mao, as Headquarters was located a couple miles or so away, on the other side of the village.  The platoon came to a crossroads where they had orders to keep moving on, straight at the fight which was still going strong.  Liver jumped off and started hoofing it alone, with just the barrel of an M-16 for protection.


     He walked nervously through the center of town, the streets eerily devoid of people, yet filled with the sounds of battle near and far.   As he approached the edge of the village, a woman ran out the front door of the last house, straight at him.  She was carrying a small paper bag which she tossed at his feet.  Instantly the word grenade screamed silently in his head and he took off at a dead run. After a twenty or thirty yard sprint, and no explosion, Liver slowed back to a walk. 


     He could now see Headquarters front gate only a couple hundred yards in front of him.  He was out in the wide open, walking slowly down the road toward the gate, in the perimeter kill zone.  Two red flares shot up in the perimeter and Liver froze…enemy inside the wire.  There was an instant question before him, whether to run at the gate or away from it.


    Liver caught sight of two black dots in the air off to his right and he took off straight at the gate as hard and fast as his adrenalin could carry him.  The ground splattered with machine gun fire all around as he ran and the two jets passed overhead, missing their target.


    He made it through the gate and dashed into the first sandbagged bunker he saw.  There was only one person in the bunker, a 2nd lieutenant, and Liver began excitedly relaying the strafing and grenade incidents.  Liver was pretty wound up by this time and happy to have the relative safety of the bunker.  To his horror the lieutenant took an interest in the dud grenade and said “we’re going to have to go out and take care of that”, whereupon he had Liver load up in a jeep, and out the gate they went.


       Liver was terrified at this excursion, pointing out the paper sack in the ditch, the lieutenant got out to examine it, while Liver sat in the jeep.  He was not about to go anywhere near that thing.  The lieutenant gingerly opened the bag with a stick, only to reveal some rotten meat.  Satisfied with that, he hopped back in the jeep and dropped Liver off at the field hospital.


     There were twenty or so wounded being tended to there, Liver got his knee bandaged and wrapped as he held hands and talked with a trooper who told him his APC had taken a direct hit from a B-40 rocket. The fellow had a lot of shrapnel in him, but the medic said he’d be ok.


     Liver was in a big hurry to move on through the process, and once cleared by the Medics, he hurried over to the supply room, turning in the barrel of the M-16.  The Squadron supply sergeant scowled, took the barrel as if it were unacceptable, asking “where’s the rest of it?” He took another look at Liver, who started stammering about the ammo dump, and didn’t pursue the question further as he signed off on the weapon.


      He made his way from the supply room to the Colonels’ office, where he was invited in without hesitation.  The Colonels’ office was quiet, and seemed removed, insulated from the battle raging outside.  The Colonel was a real gentleman and the two chatted about the ammo dump as he signed off on Livers’ orders.  They shook hands and he apologized for not being able to offer a proper ride to Cam Rahn Bay.  Liver was on his own to figure that one out…Cam Rahn was over a hundred miles away.


    On the chopper pad, he found a beehive of activity.  There were a variety of Cobras, Hueys and Loaches landing, being reloaded by the scrambling ground crews and taking off again.  The landing zone was hot and there were sporadic bursts of gunfire spraying the airfield.  Liver began running up to every chopper that landed, trying to hitch a ride north.  He was turned down repeatedly as all the birds were occupied with the fight. 


      A Loach came zipping in, landing close by.  Liver ran out fully expecting to be turned down by this tiny bird, when the pilot motioned for him to jump in.  Ecstatic, Liver took a seat in the rear, next to the door gunner. The chopper took off and he began to relax a little, comfortable in the fact that he was finally leaving the war behind.  That’s when the chopper banked hard and Liver saw the artillery insignia on the officers’ shoulder. The Loach swooped around a green patch of trees and bushes below and the officer got on the radio, calling in the coordinates from a map.  The initial volley fell short, just outside the target.  The Loach was still circling, banking hard over when the next artillery rounds came in, dead center on target.


                                                                    Loach                    
                                               Courtesy Col. Samuel Meyers
    
           All hell broke loose…the door gunner firing at the little figures below, running in all directions from the artillery and shooting over their backs at the Loach as they ran.  Liver was back in the thick of the fight, puckered and helpless in the back seat, waiting for a round to come through the bottom of the chopper.     A great relief to Liver when the skirmish finally subsided and the Loach headed for Phan Rang AFB where he hopped another chopper to Cam Rahn AFB, and a commercial jet home; his four year commitment at an end.   
   2/1st Ammo Dump April 1, 1970
   Courtesy Col. Samuel Myers



                                               Courtesy Col. Samuel Myers.


*April Fools Day1 Apr 70 Battle of Song Mao. Three battalions of NVA sappers launched an attack on the MACVcompound and the base of the Blackhawks (2nd Squadron, 1st Air Cavalry) at Song Mao, with over 100 81mm mortar rounds destroying the ammo dump and 50% of the fuel depot. 2-1 Cav and 44 ARVN Regt (-) engaged the enemy in a day long contact, killing 151 enemy and capturing 14 at a cost of 8 KIA (2 US, 2 ARVN and 4 civilians) and 39 WIA (34 US, 5 ARVN). At the time of the attack C Co., 1st Bn (Mech), 50th Inf was patrolling some 40 kilometers away with an OPCON company of the 44th ARVN Regiment and saw the night sky over Song Mao light up and heard a rumble like distant thunder. As the closest U.S. combat unit, C/1/50 executed a night movement to contact in support of Song Mao and established a blocking force in the Le Hong Fong Forest to wipe up enemy survivors.

* Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website

*Cavalry Trooper, A Troop, 2/1 Cavalry.
Copyright 2002: Tony Dodson. All rights reserved.

I was in A Troop 3rd Platoon (vehicle Alpha 3-1). I just happen to be inside the wire that particular night. Charlie started walking those mortars in on us in the middle of the night (can't recall the exact time). He was walking those SOBs right towards the ammo dump. You being a Mech Doggie, you can imagine what was in there.

 At the same time he was sending the incoming, he had sapper teams breeching the parimeter. He was counting on us having our heads down during the initial attack, but we had seen him try to pull that trick before. We caught two in the wire and one at the dump. As a matter of fact our platoon dog, JP Fuck It, detected the sapper who made it to the dump. At first light, we found JP and the sapper both KIA in the same spot. Unfortunately, the dump was blown. That was why you could see the sky lit up from 40 klicks away. With the incoming, small arms fire, all those 90mm HE, Willy Peter, Flechete, and God knows what else rounds cooking off, I can say that was as close to Hell as I ever want to get.
Alpha Troop lost Red Stemper that night. Charlie Troop lost Otto Draken. Delta Troop lost, James Byrd, one of the Air Rifle Platoon guys. He fell out of one of the choppers the next day during an insertion.

 Once the sun was high in the sky, the Troop mounted up and took out after Charlie. The next two days was some nasty stuff. We didn't loose anyone else, thank God, but we did have some WIAs. We lost one vehicle, that I can remember. Alpha 3-2 took a RPG broadside, almost killing Doc Good, Conway, and Mud Puppy. The TC, Sgt Terry, was not injured and managed to lay down some pretty damn good cover fire from his 50 CAL while Doc Good tended to the wounded, himeself being one of the wounded.
Speaking of Doc Good, I went to visit him about a year or so ago. He was still being treated for that same shrapnel he took that day. Doc also earned the Silver Star that day. Doc told me that he went back to Song Mao a couple of years back. He sat down and had lunch with the VC Col who was directing the motar fire that night. The Col made Doc a gift of the medal he was awarded for the battle, and Doc gave him an American Indian Talisman that he always carried with him. Talk about strange twists of fate !!!! You figure that one out.

 I often think about those poor bastards getting caught out in the open like that. Between us and the Cobras, we chewed thier asses up pretty good. By the time all was said and done, we had 143 of thier KIA piled on the back of a couple of 5 ton dump trucks. We dumped them into a mass grave some where out there and continued to press on. I'll never forget the look on each of their blood and dirt covered faces as they slid into that man made hole in the Earth. Those faces still visit me in my dreams to this day.
Ray, that's all I can say about that matter. All those young lives gone to dust. I just hope it was all worth it in the end. Let me know if any of this is of any help to you.

 Tony Dodson, A Troop, 2/1 Cavalry, 6/32 Arty, 69-71
* Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website

For further reading on the battle of Song Mao check the 1/50 website, I caution some of the descriptions are graphic.




   




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