No Joy In Happy Valley

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Our next brush with the enemy came at two minutes after midnight on 25 September 1968. While participating in an operation with the 1st Bn 503rd Infantry (Airborne) we were subjected to a mortar attack. LT John Easton was killed, and Donn Cunningham was severely wounded.

We were located in a place we called Happy Valley, at BR 829-594. It was within range of LZ Jenny, a ROK Army Capitol Division (aka Tiger Division) firebase on Highway 504 at BR 851-550 that had towed 155mm howitzers of WWII vintage. We were part of a blocking force that was supposed to be the Anvil end of the classic Hammer-and-Anvil maneuver.

While most of the unit was asleep (we were on 25% alert), elements of the 18th "B" NVA Regiment (so the intel guys said) lobbed a couple of dozen 60mm rounds into our night defensive position. One impacted directly beside where SP4 Billy Kneipp, PFC Donn Cunningham, and I were sleeping next to the tank. The shrapnel from the exploding round passed over Kneipp and me, struck Cunningham in the right knee, and Easton, alone atop the tank on guard, in the back of his head.

I was stunned by the concussion of the blast and while I groggily crawled up the side of the tank to get to the gunner's seat, one of the infantrymen almost shot me, thinking I was a NVA infiltrator. Billy had already made it to the tank and was enthusiastically firing the caliber fifty machine gun.

While Kneipp sprayed the area around the perimeter of our vehicle, I moved Easton onto the back deck of the tank and administered first-aid. I was amazed that I remembered how to do it, especially under the circumstances. At times like this you go on automatic-pilot and do things from rote memory.

There was little I could do however, other than apply a battle-dressing to his head to protect the silver-dollar-sized hole in the back of his skull. Easton was talking during this period. He kept saying "Keep firing" over, and over.

After tending to Easton and calling for a Dustoff on the radio, I entered the turret and fired a couple of canister rounds toward the bad-guys. God only knows if I hit any, but it made me feel better to do something.

It took an inordinate amount of time for the Dustoff ship to arrive. Apparently no one answered the phone at the Dustoff CP back at LZ Uplift when our CP called them to request the Dustoff. It wasn't until 0110 that the Dustoff ship arrived overhead and called us on our company frequency.

The pilot asked if the LZ had received any "hostile fire in the last 20 mikes" (minutes). This was standard procedure, but it infuriated several of our guys who mistook this question for a reluctance on the part of the pilot to land. It was actually their way of determining just how steeply they needed to approach the LZ in order to minimize their exposure to ground fire. It does no one any good if the Dustoff gets shot down.

With the help of a Spooky gunship that dropped huge Navy parachute flares to illuminate the LZ, we managed to get Easton evacuated by Dustoff. An hour later we heard he died in the Huey on the way to the 67th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon. Cunningham was evacuated on the same chopper and we received a letter from him at the 249th General Hospital, a U.S. Army hospital at Camp Zama, Japan a few weeks later telling us that the Army doctors saved the leg, but that he would always limp.

I was covered with blood from tending to Easton, and for some reason I associated the smell of blood with the smell of cordite from the main gun which hung heavy in the still air. From that moment on, whenever we fired our main gun and I smelled the cordite, I was struck by a sense of impending doom because I thought I was smelling blood.

The New LT

Billy Kneipp and I were left to man the tank by ourselves for 8 days, with occasional help from others, such as SGT Bobby Coad Jr., and SGT Lou LaChance (our FO) until the arrival of 1LT Howard "Stretch" Grohman from the First Field Force Vietnam Headquarters in Nha Trang.

Morale in the platoon had been extremely low after Easton's death. He had been a popular leader, respected by the troops, and his loss seriously affected everyone. Grohman's arrival on October 4th, 1968, changed all that. His first order of business was to have sporty black berets, with the crossed sabers and Pershing Tank insignia of the Armor branch embroidered on the left side in gold, made for everyone. He then improved our logistical position, ensuring that we had the support necessary to carry out our missions. Among other more mundane things like diesel fuel, ammo, and toilet paper, that meant lots of cold beer. His leadership style was assertive but low-key. He commanded respect by his actions. He was without doubt the finest company grade officer I served under in three years in the Army. And I'm not saying that because of the cold beer, either. Honest.

Unlike some new platoon leaders, Grohman appeared to know exactly what he was doing from the moment he arrived. He would ask questions, and listen to advice when he thought it was called for, and he caught on quickly to the peculiarities of armor operations in our AO.

Grohman preferred to control column formations from the front, so we were always the point tank in the column. This meant that we would be the first vehicle to contact the enemy, but it also kept us out of the dust clouds of other tanks. There are trade-offs to everything in life. Eventually being always on-point would become a badge of honor and pride within our crew.

Image: Charlie 14 Fording stream near Dam Trau Lake

On October 9th, 1968 we began an operation in the area of the Bong Son plains in the company of paratroopers of the 1st Battalion 503rd Infantry (Airborne), of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Since the 1st Air Cavalry Division received all of the air assets (Army talk for helicopters) as well as all the publicity, the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd usually walked into battle. When operating with us however, they got to ride. When they dismounted they could leave their 60lb rucksacks on our tanks, so they liked to see us around. They also appreciated the tremendous amount of direct-fire support we could provide when needed. But they stayed as far away from us as as possible, referring to our tanks as "bullet magnets".

Our company commander, Captain Raymond P. Baird, had commandeered our tank, Charlie 11, for this operation since his tank, Charlie 6A, had a malfunctioning generator, and could only be started via a slave from another tank. Baird had left his crew under the command of his gunner, SGT John Jamison (who would go on to acquire lasting fame by building the Charlie company bar in the mess hall at LZ Uplift).

Stretch Grohman had moved over to Platoon Sergeant Scavella's tank, Charlie 14, but Billy Kneipp, Jim Gingery, and I, remained aboard C-11 to crew the vehicle for Baird.

Baird had gold chains attached to his weapon, map case, and binoculars, in order to secure them to his torso. He reminded us of a little kid whose mother pins his mittens to his sleeves so he won't lose them. I thought he was a dead ringer for Arnold Stang.

After tearing around the countryside for a day, accomplishing little but burning copious amounts of diesel fuel, we set up in a NDP, or Night Defensive Position. We parked the tanks in a Laager, which is simply a circle with all tanks facing out.

The Bong Son plain was a mixture of rice paddies and lush jungle, and very muddy in some places. Since the VC mined the rice paddy dikes, the only dry ground, the grunts usually had to wade through the flooded paddys on these sweeps. If we kept our speed up, we could usually ram the tanks through the mud and emerge onto dry ground with little trouble.

However, on this day we were to get several tanks stuck in the paddy mud. The last of these was Charlie 13 west of Dam Trau Lake at BR 930-838. It wasn't until 1945 that evening that Stretch Grohman, the three tanks with him, and our company M-88 VTR closed our night location at BR 945-849, joining the remainder of the company. One half hour later our night defensive position was attacked by the NVA.

Our platoon had been reunited with the other two tank platoons of Charlie Company in this operation east of Highway 1, along the coast of the South China Sea, north of LZ Uplift. We were joined in late afternoon by the "Rat Patrol", the 1st platoon of E troop, 1st Squadron 17th Cavalry. These scouts were mounted in gun-jeeps, M-151 jeeps with an M2HB machine gun on a pedestal mount. Our strength at 2000 hours was 15 tanks, 1 M-88 VTR, one company of dismounted airborne infantry, and the five jeeps and 15 scouts of 1st Platoon of E Troop 1st Squadron 17th Cavalry 173rd Airborne Brigade.

The 17th Cav scouts set up an LP, or Listening Post, about 50 meters outside our perimeter, and slightly to the right of our tank, at about our 1 o'clock position. Just after dark, at 2015, the scouts on the LP called in on the radio and reported movement to their left, which put it almost directly in front of our tank. They called in a few moments later to report that they could hear beaucoup movment, and estimated an enemy force of perhaps twenty individuals moving towards them.

The scout platoon leader gave them the customary instructions for a situation like this: blow your claymores, throw your frags, fire a white-star cluster (a signaling flare), and run back into the perimeter yelling "Geronimo" (the Vietenamese couldn't pronounce the "r" in Geronimo so even if they tried to imitate the LP, it wouldn't sound right).

We heard these instructions clearly on our radio speaker since the scouts were operating on our push.

At about this same instant, a long, arcing burst of green tracers came floating in over our heads. Green tracers meant that it was Soviet ammo, which meant NVA/VC fire. The tracers seemed much lower than they probably actually were, and we instinctively ducked. When the firing stopped Jim Gingery and I both tried to get into the turret at the same time through the tiny loader's hatch: I on my way to the gunner's seat, Jim on his way to his battle station on the loader's side of the main gun. We became stuck in the hatch while Billy Kneipp dropped down into the driver's seat and fired up the engine. Gingery and I extracated ourselves and he went below while I stayed on top of the turret and manned the caliber 50 machine gun after Baird said he would fire the main gun himself. The enemy firing resumed and I fired off several 25-round bursts in the general direction of the incoming automatic weapons fire, and ceased fire when the incoming fire stopped.

At this point we heard the explosions as the scouts blew their Claymores, and a second later the whooosh of the white-star cluster being launched. Captain Baird mistook the "whoosh" of the flare for an incoming mortar round and yelled "incoming". An instant later, he fired the main gun from the TC's overide. The main gun was pointed directly at the position the scouts occupied.

In the breech of the main gun we always had a canister round, which is essentially a giant shotgun shell. It is filled with cylindrical-shaped steel pellets approximately 1/2 inch long, and approximately 5/16 of an inch in diamter. There are about a thousand of these in the warhead, and they leave the muzzle at a velocity of 2,850 feet per second. After leaving the muzzle they fan out in a cone shaped pattern that cuts down everything in its path.

Every gun on our perimeter opened up and continued firing for about a minute until someone, I believe it was Stretch, gave the cease fire order over the radio. As soon as everyone on the perimeter had ceased fire, the scouts on the LP called in to say that they had two wounded and needed assistance urgently.

The scouts that remained inside our perimeter rushed out to aid their comrades and when they arrived on-scene reported that there was one dead and one seriously wounded. Adding to the carnage was that fact that the projectiles from the canister round had set off the frags attached to their web gear.

The scouts requested that we illuminate the scene with our searchlights which we did. I will never forget the sight of our medic, SP4 Fritz Padilla, running to aid them over broken palm tree trunks, naked from the waist up, no weapon, aid bag flopping as he ran. He had guts.

When Padilla arrived he found one scout dead, and the other gravely wounded The scouts radioed this information back to us and we relayed it to battalion.

We called for a Dustoff, and this night I was to develope an admiration for Dustoff pilots that lasts to this day. When the Huey arrived, it could not land because of all the palm tree stumps that protruded five or six feet into the air. The pilot hovered just above the stumps and held the chopper steady while the tips of the rotor blades whacked the palm fronds on the surrounding trees. Padilla and the scouts put the wounded man into a poncho and using this as a litter, handed the wounded scout up to the medic and the crew chief in the Dustoff ship. Our searchlights illuminated this tableau. Once loaded, the Dustoff shot straight up, extinguished his lights, and disapperared into the inky blackness. The unmistakable sound of the Huey's rotors faded into the distance and it was gone.

The scouts returned with their dead comrade and laid the body behind our tank, shrouded in a poncho. His jungle-boot clad feet protruded from beneath the poncho. If there is a sadder reminder of the horror of war, I don't know what it is.

It became obvious that the scouts held Baird responsible for the death of their comrade. We heard them discussing this in loud voices behind our tank. Suddenly one of the scouts approached the tank with an M-60 machine gun, a belt of perhaps 50 rounds dangling from it. Someone was chasing him, we found out later it was the scout platoon leader, and just as the scout reached our tank, the platoon leader caught up with him. The scout fired a burst of perhaps 25 rounds from the machinegun, but the platoon leader had managed to grab the scout, pushing the weapon toward the ground. The burst hit the ground and kicked up clouds of dust.

Realizing that he was in danger, Baird called the battalion commander and requested that a helicopter be dispatched to evacuate him from the field. The battalion commander, after a brief pause, said he wasn't about to risk an air asset on such a low priority mission.

Baird then ordered Kneipp, Gingery, and me to remain awake all night to guard him. The rest of the company was put on 50% alert. Baird remained in the turret and refused to emerge until dawn. During the night we received word that the wounded scout had died enroute to the 95th Evacuation hospital in Qui Nhon.

We remained on 100% alert for the remainder of the night and in the morning the scouts moved out ahead of us in an attempt to find the NVA who fired the automatic weapon at us. A helicopter arrived shortly after dawn and evacuated Baird from the field. In a bitter irony we loaded the body of the other scout on this Huey.

The scouts found a blood trail, meaning that we had wounded somebody seriously, but it petered-out after a few hundred meters. This was usually an indication that the wounded NVA had died. The dead don't bleed.

Killed that night were SGT Donald Curtis Hamm, 20, of Mobile, AL (Panel 41W Line 35), and CPL Gregory William Stewart, 23, of TUCSON, AZ (Panel 41W, Line 38) of the 1st Platoon of E Troop, 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry, 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate).

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Creation Date: Thursday, June 13, 1996
Last Modified: Thursday, August 29, 1996
Copyright © Ray Smith, 1996