Change Of Command

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Another disconcerting event occurred soon after Christmas. Stretch Grohman was made XO of Charlie Company, and was transferred back to LZ Uplift. We hated to see him go.

Grohman's successor was 1LT Thomas Hatcher, from somewhere in Georgia. He was a Cherry, new in-country, and fresh out of Armor OCS. We developed an immediate dislike of Lt. Hatcher. I am sure part of this was a result of everyone in the platoon regreting that Lt. Grohman had been transferred. Grohman had the unquestioned respect and loyalty of everyone in the platoon, which he had earned by his conduct and demeanor. Lt Hatcher, in the spirit of our CO, Captain Raymond P. Baird, seemed to believe that he ruled by divine right.

We displayed our dislike of Lt Hatcher by saluting him at every opportunity. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy this ritual. What he didn't know, because he wouldn't listen to anything anyone had to tell him, was that by unwritten rule, we never saluted officers in the field. The reason was simple. If you are an NVA sniper, looking to pop an officer, who do you look for, knowing that at best you'll get one shot? The guy everyone salutes, of course. So to forestall this unpleasantness, we simply never saluted in the field.

It had become a tradition in our platoon to call Lt Grohman "Boss". This was, in our view, the highest compliment we could pay. It wasn't meant to be flip, it was simple recognition of the fact that he was the boss, and we knew it. One day, in an unguarded moment, I called Hatcher "boss" out of habit instead of "sir". He went ballistic. I apologized profusely, saluted for an inordinate length of time, and prayed that one of General Giap's finest was out there with a Soviet made sniper rifle, a steady hand, a keen eye, and a clear shot. No such luck.

The pattern of our operations changed significantly as we made numerous BDA, or Bomb Damage Assessment sweeps of the rugged terrain south of highway 19. This was definitely not tank country, and these missions were arduous. We burned enormous amounts of fuel climbing these mini-mountains, and actually had to have a CH-47 Chinook deliver fuel to us in big rubber Blivets. We then had to hand-pump almost 350 gallons of diesel fuel into our fuel tanks.

During one of these sweeps we drove through some extremely tall elephant grass. It was ideal concealment for the enemy, and I peered behind us frequently to make sure no one popped up behind us with a rocket launcher. It was during one of these periodic checks of our tail that I saw a body wearing OD in the flattened grass behind us.

I immediately thought it was one of our grunts that were spread out on both sides of the tank as flank security. I yelled into the intercom for my driver du jour, Tom Rapp, to stop. I told him about the body, and in his haste to backup to it, he almost ran over it again. We dismounted and quickly discovered, to my supreme relief, that it was an NVA soldier, and not one of our grunts. He had on the traditional Ho Chi Minh sandals, and dark green fatigues, and he was a mess. He also had an RPG-7 rocket launcher tipped with a B-40 anti-tank rocket next to him.

But the most amazing thing was the Atlantic-City-Cigar-sized joint he still held between his index and middle fingers. It was made with paper from a Playboy centerfold and was filled with an enormous amount of marijuana. Apparently, he was so stoned that he was unable to avoid our lumbering vehicle, and Rapp had accidentally, and unknowingly, run over him.

It was with a certain degree of chagrin that I reported to Oscar that we had one NVA KIA.

The next night, at about 1AM, bridge 21 on Highway 19 east of LZ Schueller was attacked by NVA infantry. A frantic call came over our radio net saying that the bridge guard, a platoon of airborne infantry, was being overrun.

I called our platoon sergeant, MSG Allan Napoleon Scavella, and indicated, much to the consternation of my crew, that I was willing to go to the aid of the bridge guard. Scavella had already decided to go himself, so he said to follow him.

We roared out of LZ Schueller in pitch darkness and headed east following Scavella in Charlie One Four. This was scary stuff. During the day, we owned the roads in Vietnam. At night, ownership reverted to Charles. We were making more noise than a cat fight and I knew that every NVA and VC in II Corps could hear us.

After we had driven about halfway to the bridge, my tank slowed precipitously. I asked Chuck Barker, my driver du jour, why he slowed down. "I didn't slow down" he protested, "I've got my foot on the floor!". His reply meant that the Allison CD-850 transmission had given up the ghost. A few seconds later there was a loud bang, which signaled the fact that the transmission had gone from in extremis, to DOA. The tank coasted to a stop in the inky blackness, and I reported the event to Scavella on the radio.

He continued on to the bridge, the correct thing to do, and we were left to wait. Scavella informed LZ Schueller of our predicament and I pondered our next actions.

A tank is a formidable weapon when it can maneuver, but it is a fifty-two-ton pillbox when it cannot. The armor wouldn't protect us against a B40 rocket, so I made the decision to dismount from the tank and dig-in by the side of the road.

We removed our radio, and the coax machine gun, along with several hundred rounds of belted ammo for it. I took my M-16 and 400 rounds, and Tom Rapp and Chuck Barker took the caliber .45 "grease guns". We tried to be as quiet as possible while doing this.

We started to dig fighting positions when Rapp indicated that he heard something in the tall grass to the south side of the road. I was skeptical of this, since we were making so much noise digging holes that I wondered how he could hear anything else. We stopped digging however and after a few moments I heard the noise too. The elephant grass makes noise long after someone walks through it, as the tall blades return to an upright position they hit each other making a distinct sound.

It could have been a large animal, it could have been one of our SRAPs (Short Range Ambush Platoons), or it could have been the enemy. I called in and asked our CP if we had any "friendlies" in the area. They said no, and we were given clearance to fire without being fired upon.

The CP requested that a flare ship be dispatched to our location in case we made contact and I spent the better part of an hour whispering into the handset in a vain attempt to get the Huey over our position. The map was of little help since it was pitch black and all I could tell the pilot was that we were located somewhere between bridge 23 and bridge 22. He illuminated half of the central highlands, but never came anywhere near our location.

When the sound began again Barker fired about 100 rounds from the coax machine gun in the general vicinity of the noise. He had to stop however as the barrel became too hot to hold. I returned to the tank, manually traveresed the turret in the direction of the noise, and fired a canister round from the main gun. I jumped down to the ready rack and loaded a beehive round and fired that also. Before leaving the turret I retrieved the asbestos mitten we used to remove hot brass. I figured Barker could use it to hold the barrel of the coax machine gun if we needed to fire it again.

I returned to the ground beside Rapp and Barker and we waited in our shallow holes by the side of the road for what seemed like a long time before the sun rose. When it did rise we ventured out into the area where the main gun rounds had cut a swath through the elephant grass. We found nothing. No dead animal, no dead NVA, and no blood trails.

Shortly after dawn we were towed back to LZ Schueller by a VTR sent from Camp Radcliff. We would spend the next few days awaiting a replacment transmission, and taking the tank apart to install it. This was hard work, eveything on a tank is heavy, but I was looking forward to it, since it was a clearly defined objective with a tangible reward at the end.

In early January, we were advised that the NVA/VC had begun planting mines on the approaches to the strongpoints we manned every day. To combat this, we were ordered to have two crewmembers walk in front of the tank to search for mines before driving into position.

On January 8, 1969 at 0810 hours Rapp found a 10-inch-diameter Soviet anti-tank mine buried on the appraoch to strong point 10 (where a suprising number of adventures occurred) as we were preparing to occupy it. We called EOD and they blew it in place leaving a good-sized crater in the road.

On January 10, at 1445 hours, as we approached strongpoint 7 with Robert Taps driving, yours truly in the TC's hatch, and Tom Rapp and Chuck Barker walking out in front of the tank, Rapp accidentally dislodged an unexploded 40mm grenade that had been fired by an ambush platoon the night before. It exploded injuring Rapp's hand and shrapnel from it slightly wounded Chuck Barker.

The blast tore the flesh from two of Rapp's fingers, and it was a serious wound. I called for a Dustoff and Rapp was evacuated at 1500 hours to the 17th Field Hospital at Camp Radcliff. Barker was treated at the scene and returned to duty immediately. This left Robert Taps, Chuck Barker, and me to man the tank.

Rapp remained hospitalized for about three weeks while the tissue on his fingers regenerated. When he returned to the tank, the wounds had healed satisfactorily. Sometime during week two of his hospitalization we found ourselves at Camp Radcliff getting supplies so we visited Rapp in the hospital. Both he and Barker, indeed, all of us, were extremely lucky that the grenade didn't do more damage.

January 13th saw my tank, Charlie One-Two, down for repairs, again. It was the same problem the we had numerous times. The Alison CD-850 transmission had failed and we once again had to pull the pack.

Image: VTR pulling engine from Charlie One-two at LZ Schueller 13 Jan 69

My crew and I spent January 13th taking Charlie 12 apart to replace the dead transmission. An M-88 VTR from the 704th Maintainence Battalion at Camp Radcliff, the same one that had towed us back to LZ Schueller, pulled the powerpack and set it on the ground. We then proceeded to remove the transmission from the engine.

On 15 January, at 0715 hours the morning minesweep, which consisted of an engineer squad from the 173rd Airborne, one of our tanks (Charlie 15 on this day), and several M-113s of B-1/50th, was ambushed. It was the usual scenario. The VC placed piles of junk in the road, and then sprung the ambush when the column stopped to examine the scene. We heard the events unfold on our radios.

LT Hatcher's reaction to this news was to pile the crew of Charlie 13 onto the outside of his tank, Charlie 16, and roar off west on Highway 19 like the 7th Cavalry to the rescue. About midway between LZ Schueller and the ambush site, Hatcher and company came upon the same old VC trick. The road was littered with junk: old cans, ammo boxes, and piles of excrement. Almost any of these objects could conceal a command detonated mine. The purpose of this was to force the vehicles to either manoeuver around the junk, and hence off the hard stand and into the dirt where an anti-tank mine is more easily concealed, or to make the crew dismount to examine the junk where they were vulnerable to sniper fire.

Hatcher apparently had time to do neither as the lone vehicle came under withering automatic weapons fire. Immediately, SSG Chester L. Brewer was shot in the arm and stomach, and a bullet passed through him and lodged in the skull of SP4 Jim Gingery. At the same time, a bullet fragment or shrapnel hit Hatcher in the neck, causing a superficial but bloody wound.

Brewer, Hatcher, and Gingery were evacuated by Dustoff to the 17th Field Hospital in An Khe within minutes of the ambush. Two days later Stretch Grohman was with Chet Brewer when he came out of surgery. On February 5th, Stretch received a letter from Chet who had been evacuated to Camp Zama, a US Army hospital just outside Tokyo. Chet said that he was experiencing paralysis of the fingers of his right hand, but that the stomach wound was healing.

Hatcher's wounds were not life threatening and he was evacuated to LZ Uplift to convalesce. Jim Gingery spent 3 days in the hospital, where they told him that it would be better to leave the bullet in his head than to risk taking it out. Three days later Gingery was back in the field.

Because there was, luckily as it turned out, no room on Hatcher's tank for me and my crew, we borrowed an M-113 from the Redlegs at Schueller. I was the only member of my crew who knew how to drive the quirky little APC so I drove, with Taps and Barker in the cargo compartment.

When we arrived at the ambush site we saw the bodies sprawled about on the back deck of Hatcher's tank and on the ground behind it, We stopped next to Hatcher's tank to render assistance but the Dustoff had already arrived and was in the process of extracting the wounded. There was still small arms fire coming in from the woodline so Taps remained in the TC's hatch, enthusiastically firing the 50, while Chuck Barker was standing in the open cargo hatch, firing the Thumper. We remained there until reinforcments arrived in the form of a platoon from the 1st/50th who immediately tore off into the woods after the fleeing NVA. We then returned to LZ Schueller to continue working on Charlie 12. It seemed that things were heating up and since we had two tanks down, it was imperitive that we get them back into action as soon as possible.

Our next serious run-in with Charles came the next day, at 0700 on 16 Jan 69, again on Highway 19. MSG Allan Scavella was killed, and his loader, PFC Kenneth Patterson, was seriously wounded. They had been returning from bridge guard duty on bridge 27 when they were ambushed east of Bridge 25 near Pump Station 7 by NVA. The enemy fired anti-tank rockets at the two tanks (the other tank was commanded by SSGT Joseph E. "Chickenman" Ahlman) and a B40 hit Scavella in the back. He was killed instantly.

Back at LZ Schueller, my crew and I were still baby-sitting our downed tank. Because of the fact that the tank was hors d' combat, we did not have the radios on (the batteries were long since dead), and so did not hear the frantic calls for help from Ahlman. The commander of the firebase, a light colonel, came storming up onto my tank to inform me of the ambush and to inquire why I wasn't doing anything about it. I politely pointed out that without a tank, what could I do about it? Once again I asked for, and he provided, an M-113 APC which we used to haul-ass to the ambush site.

By the time we arrived at the ambush site, of course, the deed was done and Charles had vanished. SSG Ahlman's crew had accounted for two dead NVA who were laid out along the side of the road like trophies from a deer hunt. I had no sympathy for the dead NVA. This was the second time a member of my platoon was KIA and I was seething because we seemed unable to retaliate in a meaningful way.

At this point SSG Ahlman became the platoon leader. But not for long, since this very day he rotated home. This left me as the ranking NCO and the de facto platoon leader.

Our First Sergeant, Maurice A. Ferry came out on a log bird to bolster our morale. He assured me that I would only need to be in command of the platoon for a few days until they could get an officer or a more-senior NCO out to the field.

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Creation Date: Thursday, June 13, 1996
Last Modified: Thursday, August 29, 1996
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