Upon arrival at Cu Chi I was assigned to Alpha Battery 7th Battalion 11th Artillery. It consisted of six 105mm towed howitzers. The battery provided fire support for the ground forces in the Tay Ninh Province area near the Cambodian border. This area had several names. Parrots Beak, Iron Triangle, War Zone C. This area was one of the main supply routes used by the Viet Cong to infiltrate into South Vietnam. The Battery was away from Base Camp at a forward Fire Base somewhere in the countryside. Before I could join them I had to attend a three-day orientation for new soldiers. This was basically geared for ground pounders and how to recognize booby traps. During my stay at Base Camp I was given all of my field gear and other items I would need. I was also given a long cardboard box that contained a brand new M16 rifle the first one I had ever seen or handled.
I was finally taken out to the forward fire support base to where A Battery was located. Because of a shortage of personnel to man the guns I was immediately assigned to gun number 4, referred to the Base Piece. I spent two months at Fort Leonard Wood learning combat field communications, codes, how to operate cryptographic cipher machines and other operations. Now at the drop of a hat I was now a cannoneer, a gun bunny, a cannon cocker. It didnt really matter to me. In fact I thought it might be interesting to be a part of a gun crew.
Gun number 4 was a very busy place. It was the gun that was designated as the center of the Battery. It fired during most of the missions to provide accuracy to where the center of the artillery rounds hit. Number 4 was also used to register the different lots of ammo to verify the consistency to where the rounds struck which was important to the infantrymen in the field.
Im not sure where I first met up with the unit; they moved a lot. My first recollection was of an area that was flat and sandy soil. The guns were facing east into the rising sun. A pasture was out front with an occasional nervous water buffalo grazing under the guns.
The position for each gun was a well fortified parapet with sand bags and PSP which were 10 by 2 sections of steel grating originally designed for use as an airstrip. This was used as platforms for each gun to shoot from and also to support the roofs of the bunkers. The trails of the guns were off the platforms so they could dig into the dirt when the guns were fired. Sometimes the ground was so hard we had to stand on the trails to help them dig in when the gun was fired. The first round while standing that way was always a lot of fun. During the rainy season the water would fill in the holes dug when the gun was fired. It was like being splashed by a truck hitting a water-filled pot hole. When we werent doing fire missions we were constantly improving our gun emplacements and filling sandbags. One guy held the sandbag and one or two others did the shoveling. It took about two and a half shovels to make a good bag.
The senior enlisted guy of the unit was called the Chief of Smoke. He oversaw the operations of the Battery while it was in the field. This guys name was Gonzales. He was huge! He mustve weighed 300 pounds. His flack jacket had the lacings removed from under the arms so he could drape it over his shoulders.
We were continually improving our positions by constantly filling sandbags. I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every bag I filled. Our primary bunker had standing room in it if you were no more than four feet tall. The walls were sand bagged two feet thick. The roof was PSP covered with a truck canvas then covered with sandbags. There was always a leak somewhere. The entrance had a sandbag wall in front of it to protect the inside from shrapnel. None of the bunkers we built couldve stood a direct hit.
We moved the guns around a lot. This was usually done by towing them behind trucks. Once we were moved by Chinook helicopters. The guns were moved by hooking them to slings and lifting them beneath the helicopter and flown to the new location. I remember driving my jeep with a trailer into the cargo bay of one Chinook. I stayed in the drivers seat while we flew for about 15 or 20 minutes. After landing my attempts to back the jeep and trailer out of the helicopter were not successful. The trailer jackknifed and I could not get the jeep all the way off the loading ramp. The Chinooks crew chief waved me out of the jeep. The pilot moved the aircraft forward which allowed the jeep to slide the rest of the way off the ramp and the Chinook to fly away.
I remember one forward Fire Base we were at. The ground was so hard explosive charges had to be used to dig the holes for our bunkers. Some were able to be dug with hand tools. I remember one that was dug and a foot of ground water seeped in. A little later we notice something was swimming in the muddy water at the bottom of the hole. I thought someone was playing a trick on us. Turned out some kind of a dormant fish egg had been come to life when the hole filled with water.
I remember this as a bad location for a forward fire support base. Every few days we came under mortar attack. Sometimes we could hear them being launched by the VC in the jungle. Someone would yell Incoming and we would run to our bunkers. The attacks lasted only a few minutes. One attack took place while we were building our bunker. At this time we had no overhead cover and could only lie in the open air praying not to get a direct hit. An attack a few days later caught me out in the open. The explosion was close enough that I felt something hit me on my right side. I yelled out and fell down grabbing at my side. Another soldier ran over to help me. I did not see any blood or feel any pain. I looked at my clothing and found a small piece of shrapnel sticking in my shirt. I plucked it out and gave it a toss as I scurried for cover.
One night we came under an intense mortar attack from the jungle. One round struck just outside our bunker blowing holes in my duffle bag. During this barrage the VC infiltrated through our perimeter wire and blew up our ammo dump. Several huge explosions rocked the ground. Smoke filled the air inside our perimeter limiting visibility to just a few feet. We were told not to leave our bunkers and to shoot anything that moved. We spent the rest of the night with weapons at the ready.
At dawn the all clear was given and we went outside. The destruction of our ammo dump left a dangerous mess everywhere. The entire area of the Fire Base was littered with unexploded artillery rounds and other damaged munitions. It took several days to clear it all away. We moved out of the area about a week later.
The heavy rains of the monsoon season were a real problem. Most if not all of the bunkers could not hold up to the deluge and leaked badly. It was a muddy mess in the area of the guns. Gravel was needed to help firm the ground. I went on one of the gravel runs to a rock quarry near Saigon to get a couple of truck loads. Our trucks were escorted from the Fire Base down Highway 1 to a staging area near Saigon known as Connex City. From there we went on our own to the quarry. Saigon was a very busy city with people everywhere. Bicycles, motor scooters, animal drawn carts and small cars clogged the streets. Street vendors and small stores were everywhere. After loading up with gravel we were to return to Connex City to meet up with our escort vehicles for the trip back to the Fire Base. Escort vehicles varied from quad 50 cals mounted in the back of a deuce and a half to 7.62mm M60 machine guns mounted on a pedestal in the back of a M151 gun jeep. M60 tanks and quad 40mm dusters provided over-watch at strategic locations. We carried M16s and other side arms.