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A Story of the Artillerymen Who Supported Tall Comanche

 Written by Doug Hendrixson, Radio Call Sign:  Birth Control 28, who served with C-2/5th Cav. from March-August 1969.  Currently a resident of Littleton, (Denver) Colorado)

No training I received on stateside duty could possibly prepare me for what I would experience with “Tall Comanche.”  Not Artillery Officer’s Candidate School (OCS) at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, nor my 1 year duty assignment at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina with the 82nd Airborne Division.  At least when I was with the 82nd Airborne, I met a lot of junior officers who had spent time as FO’s in at least one tour in ‘Nam.  It was there that I heard a little about the art of adjusting artillery by sound, rather than by sight.

Ft. Sill is in Comanche County, Oklahoma, and the Officers Candidate School (OCS) was affectionately referred to as “Comanche County Cannon Cocker College.”  It is ironic that one year after my graduation from OCS - I would be with “Tall Comanche” in ‘Nam. 

I will attempt to spare everyone the agony of re-living the horrors of the war.  All of us were very close to someone that didn’t return to the States alive.  My first Recon Sergeant., Danny Hackett, was KIA by an NVA rocket shortly after he left the field and got a nice cushy job as an RTO back at Battalion HQ.  That just devastated me.  He was a helluva Recon. Sgt., and most importantly, a helluva good person. 

While there is a growing pride among many veterans of the Vietnam war, there are also many of us who are in this for the “brotherhood” aspects – not reliving of the war itself.  No matter what your memories are of the war or how you felt personally about it, there was still a “brotherhood” made under that duress that will never be broken.  I will try to be respectful to those who simply would really prefer not to be reminded of the “dark side.”

HOW DOES AN ARTILLERY BATTERY FUNCTION?:  Please bear with me.  Much of the remaining portion of the article relies on my very foggy and aging memory.  Some of what is discussed below may lack perfect accuracy (kind of like the artillery itself!)  But I think it’s “close enough for government work.”

The field artillery Battery consists of a trilogy of responsibilities: 

Responsibility #1:  The Guns.  The guns are the “muscle” of the artillery.  A gun crew consisted of the following duties:

  1. The crew chief (the guy who supervises the entire gun crew and relays firing commands received from the Fire Direction Center)

  2. The gunner (the guy who aims the weapon the correct direction and fires the weapon)

  3. The assistant gunner (the guy who elevates the gun tube)

  4. The ammo men (the guys who prepare the ammunition and load the rounds into the breech block for firing).

  A 105 mm howitzer Battery, such as A-1/77th Artillery, consisted of six guns.  The guns were “laid” in a manner that the tubes were magnetically sighted parallel to one another and spaced in a manner that if the artillery rounds land in the same pattern the guns are spaced from each other, you will have a perfect coverage of the “steel rain.”  About the only major responsibility a Battery Commander has regarding the “nuts and bolts” operation of the field artillery is ensuring that the guns are sighted correctly and, using a surveying instrument, “laid” parallel to one another.  Due to gun displacement due to firing, this was done on a daily basis.  The guns most centrally located in the Battery are guns number 3 and 4, and usually one of those two pieces is referred to as the “base piece.”  The base piece will usually fire the adjusting rounds, then once the order “fire for effect is given” all guns fire at once.  In the case of defensive targets (Delta Tangos), where the forward observer is establishing pre-fired and recorded targets around his unit’s perimeter, the gun in the Battery layout that is situated “closest” to the infantry unit’s perimeter does the adjustment on the Delta Tango. 

Responsibility #2:  The Fire Direction Center (FDC).  The FDC is the “brains” of the artillery.  The FDC crew consisted of:  1) The Fire Direction Officer (FDO) (the guy who supervises the FDC); 2) an RTO (the guy who kept in communications with the observer and the gun crews); 3) a Computer (the guy who calculates/processes data given by the chart operators and determines what propellant powder charge is needed, and what sight direction (deflection) & elevation (quadrant) settings need to be put on the guns to have them aimed the correct direction); and 4) a Chart Operator (the guy to determines the range in meters from the guns to the target, and the direction from the guns to the target).  As a safety measure, we usually used two Computers and two Chart Operators (one to check the data of the other) in the A-1/77th Artillery.  The FDC personnel also processed Meteorological Data (MET) messages.  In layman’s terms, a MET message is data pertaining to the weather that can have bearing on the flight of the artillery round.  Based on these MET messages, adjustments are made to the firing data given to the guns.

Responsibility #3:  The Observer (FO or AO).  The observer is the “eyes” of the artillery.  Whether it is a Forward Observer (FO), Aerial Observer (AO), or Recon Sgt. who is fulfilling this responsibility, the role of the observer is to identify the target and monitor and adjust the artillery rounds to hit and destroy (or at least damage) the target.  The observer is usually located in an area separate from the guns and FDC.  The FO party usually consisted of a FO, a Reconnaissance Sergeant, and a RTO.  These were the artillery guys “grunts” got to become most familiar with.  The FO is responsible for all artillery fire missions requiring observation and adjustment by a person who is on the ground with the troops the fire mission is supporting.  The FO is responsible for keeping accurate track of his location, the location of patrols from the infantry unit he is supporting, and forwarding accurate coordinates of the targets.  A FO who can’t read a map or be responsible for the locations of the troops he's paid to protect with artillery support is a very dangerous person. 

Artillery Weapons:  There were 4 basic types of guns used in Vietnam.  Because of its mobility and quick firing time, the 105 mm howitzer was the most commonly used gun.  The 105 had a firing range of about 7 miles and the high explosive (HE) ammunition used had a bursting radius of about 35 meters.  The 155 mm howitzer was also commonly found in Vietnam, having a range of about 12 miles and an HE ammunition bursting radius of about 50 meters.  The 8” howitzer was also a popular artillery piece in Vietnam.  Known for being the most accurate of the artillery arsenal, the 8” had a firing range of about 15 miles and the HE ammunition had a bursting radius of about 80 meters.  Finally, the 175 mm gun was less commonly used.  The 175 lacked in accuracy and was slow to fire, but could hurl an HE round for almost 21 miles with an HE ammunition bursting radius of over 100 meters.  The 105, 155 and 8” howitzers and 175 mm gun all had self-propelled (SP) models that looked somewhat akin to a tank.  Due to their lack of airmobility, the SP guns were not commonly used in the 1st Air Cav. Because of the weight of the ammunition, the larger artillery pieces used hydraulic rammers to seat the rounds into the gun’s breech block.  Because of this, larger guns could not fire rounds as quickly as the manually loaded 105’s and 155’s.

The Ammunition:  There were 6 basic types of ammunition used in Vietnam.  1)  High-explosive (which could be either TNT based or, most commonly, C-4); 2)  White Phosphorus (WP – also known as “Wooly Peter” or “Willie Pete”); 3)  Smoke; 4) Illumination; 5) Firecracker (this was a less commonly used type of ammunition which was an effective anti-personnel round for maximizing bursting radius because when the round exploded, and a number of exploding “cluster bomblets” would be ejected from the primary shell somewhat like an air force cluster bomb or butterfly bomb); and  6) Beehive (believe me, no artillery crew ever wanted to have to fire it).  It was a “last line” defensive round for the LZ.  The concept was that the round would be fired and when the round left the gun tube it would explode, hurling thousands of tiny arrow-shaped pieces of metal at very high speed and at a 180 degrees outward from the explosion.  This is akin to the concept used with a Claymore mine, but far more deadly.  During the November attack on LZ Ike, when NVA regulars penetrated the perimeter, a number of Beehive rounds were fired.  Each gun crew had a pre-arranged path in which to push their gun to the perimeter of the LZ where the Beehive round could be fired without endangering our own troops.

The Fuses:  The most common type of artillery fuse used in Vietnam was called “Quick”,  which caused the round to explode immediately upon impact with the ground, a tree, or other hard object.  A second type of fuse was called “Time.”  This type of fuse was used in order to achieve an air burst.  The timing on the fuse could be adjusted to allow the round to explode at a number of given heights above the ground.  A third type of fuse was called “Delay.”  This fuse was effective when you wanted the round to go into the ground before exploding.  It would be useful for targeting underground bunkers or tunnels, or allowing the round to go through the wall of a building before exploding.  The delay fuse could also be used for low-trajectory fire where it is desired to have the round “skip” before exploding, or used in densely canopied jungle areas where a quick fuse would hit the trees causing the round to burst too high above the ground to be effective.  Finally, there was a fuse called “Variable Time (VT).”  This high-tech fuse (for that time) used a radar type of signal and was programmed to air burst at about 20 meters above the ground (which is the optimum height for an anti-personnel explosion).  Unfortunately, the VT fuse was sensitive to water.  Rainfall could cause the round to prematurely explode, as could water features on the ground.  Also the fuse would sense a dense tree canopy as being the ground and so in dense jungle areas, the rounds would likely explode 20 meters above the treetops.  This would blow up a lot of tree branches and “f--- you” lizards, but the bad guys on the ground would be unscathed.  Therefore, the use of the VT fuse was very limited in Vietnam.

Registration:  Occasionally (about once every other week), all the guns in the artillery Battery were “registered.”  This was done to ensure that each gun was as accurate as possible.  This was accomplished by firing at a surveyed target (usually a target that could be easily seen and identified by an aerial observer (AO)) and was at a relatively long-range distance from the guns.  Each gun has a surveyed location within the firing battery; therefore, an exact distance and exact bearing from the gun to the surveyed target could be determined.  Current MET data was also factored in.  So the data given to the guns by the FDC was accurate and the round fired by each individual gun should hit the target directly.  If it didn’t, the gun continued to be adjusted until two out of three rounds did hit (or come very close to hit) the target.  Then adjustments needed to be made to the gun’s settings based on this firing performance.  This “standard error” given to each individual gun was as a result in imperfections in the gun sighting, wear and tear on the gun tube, and a myriad of other factors.

Harassment & Interdiction (H&I):  The artillery Battery was given the responsibility of firing daily H&I missions.  H&I, also sometimes referred to as DefCons (defensive concentrations), were targets where army intelligence (I know – army intelligence is an oxymoron!) determined there was a high potential for enemy activity.  Aircraft observation and Vietnam era motion detectors determined most of this type of activity.  The motion detectors were somewhat crude and did not distinguish between human motion, animal motion or a falling tree.  There were probably many “f--- you” lizards, “radar” lizards, and wild boars killed or wounded by the H&I fire missions.

AERIAL ROCKET ARTILLERY (ARA):  All of us owe many kudos to the brave and valiant pilots of the Cobra gunships of the 2/20th ARA (Blue Max).  All of us were in awe of the weapons systems, and the navigational expertise of the Cobra pilots.  They put the steel right in the hip pockets of the NVA around our perimeter, sometimes just 10-20 meters from our perimeter, and I do not recall an incident where any of our own were seriously wounded by ARA support.

The ARA pilots required that our perimeter be clearly marked by smoke (during the daylight hours), or flares (during the nighttime hours).  Most of our contact was at night, and the ARA put on a spectacular light and fireworks show.  A Blue Max team consisted of two Cobra gunships.  A typical gun run “or running hot” included the “whooshing” of a half dozen or so rockets, the buzz-saw sound of the mini-guns which fired 6,000 - 7.62 mm rounds per minute, and the “thunk-thunk-thunk” sound of the grenade launcher (chunker) which fired 200 - 40mm grenades per minute.  The tracers from the mini-guns created an eerie-looking effect.  It looked like a slightly arcing laser beam was being fired at the enemy.  This effect was even more spectacular when the tracers from the NVA’s 51 caliber machine guns were being fired back at the Cobras. 

The Cobra pilots were dependent upon the artillery Forward Observer to make adjustments to where the rockets, grenades and mini-gun rounds needed to be landing -- and also to give them the heads-up when the NVA were returning fire.   (Note:  I have learned from Doug Young that Dolf Carlson, one of the last company commanders of Tall Comanche in Vietnam, told him that those duties were eventually given to the company commanders).  The ARA pilots were also dependent upon the FO to ensure that their support was coordinated with the ground artillery fire support.  They didn’t want to be shot out of the sky by a “friendly” artillery round coming in. Everything I knew about playing observer for the ARA I learned OJT.  Believe me when I say I didn’t relish the idea of having to “scramble” Blue Max (I would have rather been sleeping peacefully).  I did, however, find it to be an unforgettable experience working with these pilots to bring these firefights to a rapid conclusion. 

On the firefight we had on June 20th or 21st, 1969 (the one where platoon leader Lt. Paul was wounded), a Blue Max team (I’ll never forget the call sign: “Blue Max Yellow One”) put on the most amazing display of firepower with pinpoint accuracy I had ever seen.   I always remember that most nighttime firefights started with the NVA mortar tubes popping.  Captain Young would immediately scream “28, Scramble Max!”  I would usually scream back, “don’t worry – I already have!”  I think that is about all that needs to be said about the importance of the ARA.

Charlie Dickey, my fine Recon Sgt., wrote an article which can be found in the “Stories” section of the web site titled:  A Few Minutes in the Life of a Forward Observer and a Cobra Pilot.” This story paid tribute to a very heroic Cobra pilot named Capt. Joseph Hogg.  I can attest to the heroism of many of those pilots in the 2/20th ARA who put their lives on the line on a daily and nightly basis sticking their noses right into the “bee’s nest.”  I can also state, without qualifications, that a few more fine young men on the front lines wouldn’t have made the trip home alive had it not been for the heroism of these pilots.

OTHER FIRE SUPPORT:  Oft times, the forward observer would communicate directly with air force jet and gunship pilots, to coordinate fire support to the infantry.  Most commonly these support ships were the F-4C “Phantom” jets and the AC-4 “Puff”,  and the C-130 “Spooky” and “Spectre” gunships.  Of course the jets would provide bombing support using a combination of high-explosive bombs and napalm (referred to by the pilots as “snake and nape”).  Spooky and Spectre provided the dropping of illumination flares, and mini-gun and rapid-fire small cannon fire.  Like the ARA, they also needed to know what direction the artillery gun fire was coming from to coordinate their sorties.  Once again, I had to make sure my own ground artillery wasn’t responsible for knocking a “friendly bird” out of the sky. 

While I never had occasion to use it, some FO’s utilized naval gun support.  The most impressive of this support was the battleship USS New Jersey, which was located in the Gulf on Tonkin off-and-on for about four years between 1967-1970.  The sixteen inch (that’s the width of the gun barrel) guns from this vessel could fire one-ton projectiles about 40 miles with absolutely stunning accuracy and devastating results.  I talked with one former FO during my year at Ft. Bragg, N.C. and he told me an interesting story about the use of the New Jersey during the 1968 Tet offensive.  Evidently, the NVA had several well-entrenched and fortified positions within a hillside overlooking a 1st Cav. base camp at Phu Bai (just south of Hue and east of the A Shau Valley in I Corps).  Every night the 1st Cav. base camp was getting rocketed, from those NVA positions, and the Cav. had thrown everything but the kitchen-sink at the positions to knock them out.  All types of artillery fire missions, time on target (TOT) missions, jets strikes, even B-52 “arc-light” strikes were attempted to knock them out.  Yet, every night, more rockets would be launched at the 1st Cav. base camps from the same positions.  Finally, the USS New Jersey came onto the scene.  An aerial observer (AO) had a pretty good lock on the one most frequently used NVA position and gave the grid coordinates to the fire direction center on the New Jersey.  Evidently, the ship had a smaller gun that fired a smoke round and asked if the smoke round was on the target.  The AO said yes, fire for effect.  A salvo of one round from each of the 16 inch guns on the one side of the ship then landed right “dead on” target, and the hillside collapsed.  That ended the nightly NVA rocket attacks.    (Webmaster note:  Naval gunfire from the USS Boston was fired in support of C 2/5 Cav during the Battle of Binh An, June 1968.)

MY WORST NIGHTMARE:  While I always feared being KIA, or even worse, overrun and captured, tortured and all those unthinkable things, my worst fear was the awesome firepower I had at my hands making a deadly mistake.  Just think, having faith that hundreds of artillery rounds being fired from miles away are going to land in precisely the spot they are supposed to.  A mistake by a gun crew, the displacement of a gun as a result of firing, a calculation error by the FDC, a powder propellant charge not functioning perfectly, a Blue Max pilot becoming disoriented and firing on the wrong side of our perimeter, or even worse, a lack of judgement on my own part, -- any one of these things could have resulted in a horrible “friendly fire” accident that could have killed or seriously wounded my “brothers in arms.”

To help prevent this, I was one of the FO’s who fired defensive targets (Delta Tangos) every night.  I did this for four reasons:  1) And most importantly, I wanted to have pre-recorded, fired data on targets around our perimeter, so if we were attacked I could get artillery on the target as quickly as possible; 2) I wanted to reconfirm our location, and Delta Tangos helped accomplish this; 3) In the event that there were some bad guys lurking out there around our perimeter, the adjusted artillery rounds might just pay them a visit!  (This did happen on at least one occasion); and 4) I felt it to be a good practice from a safety standpoint.  I had a good idea where the rounds were going to land, dramatically lessening the possibility of our own artillery doing more damage to us than the enemy.

I’ll never forget the one friendly fire incident we did have.  The FO from a nearby sister Company was conducting a marking mission with WP ammo.  A mistake by a gun crew resulted in an error on the gun elevation setting, which in turn resulted in the WP round exploding among us while we were on a Reconnaissance in Force (RIF).  I could hear the sickening screams of my own “brothers”.  I grabbed the radio mike and yelled to the FDC, “This is Birth Control 28, who the “bleep” fired that WP round?  It landed right on top of us!”  (Actually my language was quite a bit more unsuited for family programming!)  I then heard that it was a WP round that was not spotted by the FO and he had ordered it to be re-fired.  Luckily, my message got to the FDC in time to prevent a re-firing.   I later learned that despite the fact we had several medivac’d due to wounds (burns) from the “Willie Pete” round, no one was hurt seriously.  It was nonetheless a helluva scare.

I remember about a month prior to the firefight in which Lt. Paul was wounded, we had a pretty serious night encounter with the NVA.  I had tube artillery pounding within about 50 meters of our perimeter and Blue Max dusting the NVA side of the perimeter within 10-20 meters of our foxholes.  Much of this firepower resulted in shrapnel landing on top of us.  But, surprisingly, most the grunts closest to the action wanted the rounds even closer.  I refused.  Later, after the firefight was over, Lt. Paul came up to me a told me I was “bleeping” crazy, a “bleeping” lunatic.  “How the hell can you risk doing that?” he asked.  Other than Lt. Paul, I seemed to be getting an overwhelming vote of confidence from all involved, -- Tall Comanche 6, Top Allen, the other platoon leaders, and most importantly, the grunts closest to it all.

In artillery, the most common fatal error is the “short round.”  Propellant powder used in the guns is not always perfect.  The tubes on the guns themselves can get dirty, affecting the flight of the projectile.  The ammo can have a flaw that can result in a round not going the distance it is supposed to.  And, for that matter, the human beings in the FDC and on the guns are not perfect.  Therefore, I tried to avoid firing the artillery right over our position.  I would sometimes use artillery from a LZ other than Ike, so we wouldn’t be on the “gun-target” line. 

This worked to our advantage one time.  We were at a location where the only other artillery unit other than A-1/77th that could support us was an 8” howitzer unit on an LZ over 10 miles away (I remember the call sign of the unit’s FDC was Noted Otter Five-Niner).  The 8” was probably the most fearsome weapon of the artillery arsenal in Vietnam.  It was extremely accurate, and the bursting radius of the HE round is about 80 meters (over twice that of the 105 mm.).  That night, we were attacked, and as luck would have it, the attack came at the area of the perimeter where my defensive target (Delta Tango) was fired by the 8” Battery.  The 8” rounds came in right on the money and helped thwart the attack very quickly.  By the time Blue Max got onto the scene, things were pretty much wrapped up.

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Updated June 02, 2002