Journal Entries for:
April 2, 1968
My boredom has reached a peak. Radio watch has little stimulation. All of my excitement comes from living vicariously through the adventures of our company while out on a mission. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite satisfy my wanderlust and so, I began to nag Sergeant Searcy, my platoon sergeant, for a chance to go along.
At first, he thought I was crazy... “Why in the world do you want to volunteer and put yourself in peril?” he asked. I explained to him that I am a fatalist and believe we can’t change what is preordained. “My chances of being killed or wounded are just as good here on the hill,” I said. The constant barrage of mortar and rocket rounds are just as likely to cause me harm as are the bullets and mines I might run into in the field. He really couldn’t dispute my logic.
A week or two after my conversation with Sergeant Searcy, word came that an APC had broken down in the field. The vehicle would need assistance before it could return to camp. The sergeant started to put together a rescue team. I chimed in to volunteer, of course. Sercy finally relented and assigned me as gunner on one of the rescue vehicles. It was late afternoon by the time we saddled up and made our way to the broken vehicle.
Alpha Troop had continued on their mission while one of its tanks guarded the downed APC awaiting repairs.
The trip out was uneventful but interesting. We traveled established roads for as long as possible passing a few small villages along the way. When the macadam and tarred dirt ended, we struck out across the rice paddies and hedgerows that separated us from our goal. It didn’t seem long before we spotted the vehicle needing our help. The men were happy to see us. No one wanted to be disabled and out in hostile territory even with a tank nearby. The repairs were made as we waited for the rest of our troop to join up.
Evening was approaching when A Troop rendezvoused with us for the trip back to camp. Three tanks led the way home. We followed the same tracks we had made on the way out to minimize the chance of hitting a mine. As the lead tank neared a hedgerow bordering an open rice field there was a loud explosion. Damn! One of our tanks had hit a mine. I immediately scanned the surrounding terrain for enemy. It appeared that this was a lone incident. No gunfire erupted.
Fortunately, the occupants of the tank were only shaken up a bit. The rescue team had made those tracks only an hour before. Either someone had come out and planted the mine knowing we’d come back this way or it had been there all along. Had any APC hit that mine there would have been much more damage and serious casualties.
Looking Over the .50 cal
Now, the fun began. The mine had blown-off the tank's track and a couple of road wheels. Since we couldn't repair the damage in the field, our other two tanks had to tow the damaged tank back to base. We fastened cable and chain between all three tanks and began our way back. It was interesting to see how quickly a simple mission could go awry. Just as it was getting dark, the tanks leading our column became mired in the sucking mud. As we tried to free them, a few Viet Cong opened fire from a nearby hedgerow. The firefight was brief and luckily no one was hurt. As darkness swallowed the countryside we requested illumination from the artillery unit stationed on Hill 29. The “lights” were turned on as flares burst into a brilliant glow dangling under parachutes. I was impressed to see how well the illumination rounds lit up everything. We finally freed the tanks and continued on our way.
We pulled into Hawk Hill at 0130 hours in the morning.
April 8, 1968
Battalion Command issued a heads-up to expect a six-day mission in the near future. Operation Burlington Trail was about to begin.
April 18, 1968
A short while ago, word came down to prepare for a six-day mission (Operation Burlington Trail) to Tien Phuoc. Tien Phuoc is an isolated village in the foothills of the mountains west of Tam Ky. I’ve always wanted to go on a major mission and I finally got my wish. Sometimes, you need to be careful of what you wish for! Our orders were to provide security for a company of engineers as they made repairs to the bridges and roads between Tam Ky and Tien Phuoc along Highway 533 (Google now shows Hwy #533 as #616).
Headquarters Platoon was short of personnel so my platoon sergeant assigned me as track commander of the XO’s (executive officer) APC. I think this was SSgt. Searcy’s (sp) way of getting back at me for being such a pest about going out on missions. First Lt. Norton, the XO, has always treated me with contempt. He comes from West Point and has little tolerance for those who don’t. To say I am not thrilled is an understatement.
We headed west from Tam Ky, making tracks across the rice paddies that stretch out to the distant mountains. This would not be an easy trip. The dikes that separate the rice fields are not easily traversed by track vehicles. These barriers act like fingers reaching out to grab the clawing padded links attempting to scale them. A thrown track could delay our mission and give the enemy an opportunity to attack.
On the Road to Tien Phouc
On the third day of the mission we pass a small village and make camp in the foothills nearby. Our bivouac reminds me of an old cowboy movie where the wagon-train forms a circle for protection from the hostiles.
As a jungle-like dampness fills the gathering dusk, Lt. Anderson,(the artillery forward observer "FO") begins preparing pre-planned defensive artillery fire around our position. He calls in 3 or 4 targets around our encampment for the two 155’s located at Tien Phouc, the only 2 guns that can reach us. As he begins shooting marking rounds to adjust the pre-planned targets one of the rounds hits close to our position. The plumes of white smoke carrying the deadly glowing white phosphorous spews like a fountain and threatens our position. The next round he backs off and hits a tree-line about 200 yards in front of us. SSgt. Jessie went running over to his track and said “Sir, you’re getting that HE (i.e., high explosive) too close. It landed right in front of my position!” He tells SSgt. Jessie “I haven’t shot any HE yet sergeant you’d better get back to your tank.” He then turns to Captain Roesler and says, “Sir, get everybody on alert we’re about to get hit!”
I hear the dreaded whistle of a mortar round as it flies over my head. I shout to the XO… “Incoming!” He looks at me incredulously as the round slams into a group of infantrymen camped behind us. The blast sets me on my heels as the shock wave engulfs our track. Suddenly, the hills are alive with mortar, recoilless rifle and automatic weapons fire. Audy Murphy would be proud as I return fire with the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on my track.
Within a few minutes the FO locates the exact firing position of the mortar and gives the 3/16th Artillery Fire Direction Center (FDC) an 8 place coordinate for the two guns at Tien Phouc and tells them to “fire for effect and melt the barrels.” He is very confident of the location and wants to hit them with as much as he can before they can escape.
The surrounding hills cringe with the impact of the exploding 155mm howitzer rounds fired from miles away. I’m deafened momentarily by the blast of the 90mm gun on the tank next to us. Wow! Remind me not to park so close. With our firepower in full swing, I’m surprised there was a tree left standing.
The howitzers are right on target. They not only silenced the mortar, but according to Captain Roesler’s estimate we got close to a hundred secondary explosions (i.e., the ammo they intended to dump on us).
Captured Machine Gun
Immediately after the mortar is silenced, Lt. Anderson begins walking the artillery up behind the enemy from the west to keep them from escaping. This is a bit scary as the guns are shooting directly at us (i.e., we were on what is called the gun-target-line) which is the most dangerous position for us to be in. (One even dropped directly in front of our track but Captain Roesler said “Keep it coming Lt.!,” so he did).
Lt. Anderson believes the marking round may have spooked one of the enemy soldiers to launch an RPG at SSgt. Jessie’s tank prematurely.
One infantryman was killed when the mortar round hit his position (there are reports of three KIA). A few other men were wounded, but none seriously. Maybe, the next time I shout a warning to the XO he’ll pull his head out of his ass and listen.
The next day we moved the camp higher up atop a larger hill. As we settled in for the night, I noticed a figure about 200 yards away walking along a path at the base of the hill. He is young, military age and wearing black pajamas. Since this is a “free fire zone” I became suspicious of the activity. It is highly unusual for a young male not to be in the military. (We consider all young military age males not serving their country to be Viet Cong.) I watched as he entered a hootch covered by a thatched roof and hidden in some trees. He never reappeared.
That night we again came under attack. Our forces opened fire in all directions. No one could tell where the mortar rounds were coming from. I opened fire and sprayed the nearby hills with machinegun fire. The thatched hootch in the valley didn’t escape the devastation.
The next day, we continue along route 533 to Tien Phouc.
As we near the mountains, we maneuver along a narrow swale no wider than a footpath. The dense vegetation and mud-holes all conspire to slow our progress. This is excellent ambush territory.
There is a particular bend in the road that Lt. Anderson had told the Squadron CO that he thought was a perfect location for an ambush. Prior to leaving Hawk Hill he had pre-planned targets for that area. That bend in the road is exactly where our infantry guys are pinned down now. Suddenly, the VC manually detonate a mine on our lead vehicle and begin walking mortars up the road on our convoy. In response, the Captain moves everyone off the road and around to higher ground.
Lt. Anderson calls in a fire mission for the two guns located at Tien Phouc and the Captain radios the Air Force to get air support. However, the Air Force refuses to give close-in air support (a mission they are not accustomed to doing) unless the FO cuts off all artillery fire. The Captain knows the infantry needs the artillery support so he sends the Air Force planes back to base and calls the Marine F-4s. In short order, two F-4s arrive and begin strafing the enemy. As they pull out of their dive and circle around for their next pass, the FO is dumping 155mm rounds on the enemy. Those guys really had guts!!! Some of the brass from the F-4's 20MM cannons fall right on top of us and several guys are injured from the falling and bouncing shells.(Makes you wonder how Charlie felt receiving what came out of the front end of those 20MM cannons!) Unfortunately, some shrapnel from the artillery rounds apparently winged one of our guys too.
The interdictions continued for the rest of the mission.
Ken Britt & Littlejohn
When we reached Tien Ky we were greeted by villagers who seemed genuinely happy to see us. A banner draped across the road bid us welcome. It was now Bravo Troop’s turn to take charge of the operation. Shortly afterward, we departed for home and Bravo Troop remained to hunt for more VC.
On our trip back to Hawk Hill a small band of VC tried to ambush us once again. We counterattacked and by altering our course, turned the tide on the VC. Their assault was unsuccessful but we managed to score a few kills. When we arrived at base camp my adventure was over and I returned to my normal duties.
*"Mission Operation Burlington Trail was begun April 8, 1968, north of Chu Lai, under the control of the 198th Inf. Bde. The mission was to open Highway 533 from Tam Ky to Tien Phuoc, a road controlled by the enemy for four years. Heavy fighting by the 198th and 1st Sqdn. 1st Cav. allowed elements of the 39th and 26th Engr. Bns. to rebuild and repair the highway. Elements of the 39th and 26th Engr. Bns. accomplished the task, with security provided by "Brave and Bold" units. "Charlie's on the way down now," said MAJ Powell. The kill ratio in Operation Burlington Trail was more than 15 to 1." (*Southern Cross information)
Burlington Trail, in which the 198th Brigade with help from the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry; 26th and 39th Engineer Battalions, succeeded in opening the road from Tam Ky to Tien Phuoc, recorded 1,948 enemy dead and 545 weapons captured. Friendly casualties: 129 US KIAs and 965 WIA.
April 20, 1968
Some of the guys in my unit have had two R and R (rest and recuperation.) vacations. Normally, we’d only get one so I asked my platoon sergeant to explain how this could happen. He said it would be possible if you took the first leave early enough. Great! Maybe, I can get two.
I’d really like to go to Japan or Australia but they’re booked. I opt to go to Taipei, Taiwan on 18 May. Six days of unwedded bliss await. Everyone I’ve talked to said Taipei is a fun place to visit.
My attempts to buy a camera at the PX have all failed. I’ll try to get one in Cam Ranh Bay on my way to Taiwan.
Mom asked for my view on the war, so here it is ... "I don't support the war but I do support my country. I think we are only hurting the people of Vietnam by being here. We destroy rice paddies with our tanks and armored personnel carriers and make life more difficult for the farmers. Anyone wearing black pajamas and running away is considered a VC and shot. As a result, many innocent people are killed."
April 23, 1968
I asked my parents to send some "civvies" (civilian clothing) for my trip to Taiwan.
Just 179 days left to serve in Vietnam.
April 27, 1968
Weather - wet
We’ve seen a little rain in the last few days but no monsoon. I don’t know which I prefer, the mud or the dust. The rain did help to cool the air a little and I’m not going to complain about that.
April 29, 1968
Recently, a supply store was built on Hawk Hill. Now we can buy food and a few other items. They don’t sell magazines, so I will still need to get them from home. I have already read the few I have six times. I expect to be put on KP in a day or two. I'd rather be out in the field!