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WHAT AM I DOING HERE
The Story of an Artillery Trooper in the Field With the Infantry
By Charlie Dickey
Birth Control 28-Delta (Currently residing in Othello, (Spokane) Washington
I arrived in Vietnam on May 3, 1969. The 707 landed at Cam Ranh Bay early in the morning and the first thing that hit me was the heat as soon as the doors were opened. By nature I am a cool to cold loving soul. My thoughts upon feeling the heat and humidity were that this would be a long and miserable year.
During the next few weeks I traveled to Bien Hoa, (the 1st Cav Rear Area), on to Quan Loi, (where I saw my first and most fierce battle), then to Lai Khe, to a mountain top Fire base named Dolly, and finally to a small clearing in the jungle called Fire Support Base Ike.
Ike was home to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry and its main gun support came from Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 77th Artillery. (105’s) I was assigned to a gun crew but within a few days I knew that I wanted to be more than a gun bunny. I volunteered to join a Forward Observation Team.
By the end of June I got my wish. I went to the field as an RTO (please remember I was a cherry and really did not know what being an RTO entailed) with a team headed by 1LT Douglas Hendrixson. We were assigned to Charlie Company under the command of CPT Douglas Young. (Tall Comanche 6)
People took pity on me (I think they thought I was crazy) and help me put together a proper ruck sack. Things were going great, I could handle this. Then someone handed me a 25 pound radio and 3 five pound batteries. (You have got to be kidding) other thoughts on this development are not suitable for family orientated reading.
I had to sit down and slip into my ruck and then somebody had to help me to my feet. But this is no different than any Blue RTO. (Webmaster note: Charlie is referring to an Infantry RTO. The color for Infantry is light blue - the artillery's color is red.) The difference came in the type of job we did in the field. Both RTO types stayed with their master, tied to each by a six foot spiral phone cord. But in my case I was there to learn the craft of calling in tube artillery and Cobra gun ships for close support. I had the best teacher in Vietnam, Doug Hendrixson, known as Birth Control 28.
Doug taught me well. There was so much to learn. Our maps were 1-50,000 and were mostly green. If lucky you had one or two contour lines but for the most part no terrain features to help you know where your were at any given time. Doug taught me how to keep track of the meters covered from a known position. He explained how to convert grid numbers to letters in order to use a code that changed every 12 hours. He taught me how bring the tube artillery on target right now, no screwing around; put rounds on the target now.
Most importantly, Doug taught me Gun Target. Gun Target is a concept that if you do not know what you are doing you may kill your own people. When talking to the tube artillery everything is based on how you are looking at the target. You give a coordinate and an azimuth to target and the Fire Direction Center ( FDC) boys do all the work. You can drop, add, move left or right. Easy as pie.
Then came the Cobras, our close in support. Now the gun target changed and changed big time. Now to adjust fire we had to put ourselves in cockpit of the aircraft and view the target as the pilot saw the target. A drop 50 meters to the guns might be a left or right to the Cobras, an add 50 would produce the same result. But to really confuse you it was necessary know which way the pilot was making his run. North to south, south to north. Make a mistake and you might kill your own people.
As time went by and I learned my craft I became a Recon Sergeant, which meant I still carried a radio, but now I was free to move forward with the men who were in the closest contact with the enemy. The most important thing I learned as a member of the FO Team was that you can not direct close in support from 100 meters behind your men.
I remember one incident when I crawled forward to adjust fire and found myself on line with the lead element. No problem, it simply meant that there were no friendlies to my front. My job was to bring fire from the sky and this I did.
Bringing this fire was not an easy job. You are busy talking to the Flight Leader getting him set to fire on the right spot and you have the tube guys asking for adjustments and some times from more than one fire base. Your mind is trying to process all this information and respond to it while all the time the enemy is shooting in your direction.
You have the radio handset stuck in your ear in an attempt to hear because the noise of battle is very loud. The pilot tells you he is making his run and in the early days when both of my ears worked, you hear the pitch of the rotor blades change as they take a bigger bite out of the air, you hear the firing of the rocket as it leaves the tube and then the sound the rocket makes as it breaks the sound barrier and then the sound of the rocket exploding. The pilot rolls out and you hear mini-gun and 40mm grenades as he claws his way to the safety of the heavens.
While I was engaged in bringing down this fire on enemy two things happened that day that are still fresh in my mind. First the Cobra’s were laying their ordinance about 50 meters to the rear of where I wanted it. Come on guys the enemy was in sight 10 meters out from my position.
Think—how do I get these guys to fire where I need it most? Answer - Lie.
So I pop smoke and lie to the pilot as to the distance to the enemy. Sometimes you had to throw the smoke behind you in order to bring the fire on the enemy. But in all fairness the pilots were very afraid of hurting their own people (see FO and the Cobra Pilot in the web-site’s Stories section).
One down, one to go. When I was calling in stuff that close it was my practice to bury my face in the dirt just in case it was a little too close. On this day the Platoon Leader signaled his people to withdraw. They had a plan so that every man knew who to touch and tell, but some how they forgot to tell me. Between impacting ordinance I looked up to check how the platoon was doing and realized that I was very much alone.
I remember doing the 40 yard low crawl for PT testing but I never thought I would have to do it backwards. I soon found myself with the rest of the Platoon. I sought out the Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant. and in words that I did not know I knew I explained to them that if they ever wanted close in support again they would develop a system whereby this young troop would never find him self alone again.
Days came and went and then it was September, and Doug Hendrixson would be leaving the field and I would get a new LT to work with the team. I remember very well the day 1LT Dan Bertram arrived.
It was a re-supply day and a bird came in, and 5 or 6 Troopers got off. One guy stood out from the rest. Barney Fife had been drafted and he was all mine. Later that night during officer call with Comanche 6 my new LT had a little difficulty navigating his way from his position to 6’s position. My heart sank. But after all it was his first experience in pitch black jungle.
First impressions can be wrong and mine was without a doubt wrong. Dan Bertram proved himself to be an excellent Artillery Officer, a good man and friend. Dan in my mind is a true American Hero. He stayed in the Reserves and retired as a Lt. Colonel.
Our team, which included CPL Gary Armstrong, worked together extremely well. Our work saved many American lives. Thirty plus years later I do feel a little sad about the enemy we killed but at the time it was us or them. I know that Dan feels as I do, we hold our heads high and walk with a little swagger because we know what we did so long ago.
The members of C 2nd 5th Cav know what we did. Simply put, we put our lives on the line to protect our Infantry Brothers. FO team members died doing this job. (I was told the Recon Sgt. who replaced me died during the incursion into Cambodia) It does bother me that the Team members did not receive the Combat Infantryman's Badge. (CIB) While most of the time we brought fire with our radios there were times when had to resort to our M-16s to defend ourselves and our brothers. In all aspects we were grunts and we are proud to be called so.
My most vivid memory of my time with Tall Comanche came on 6 October 1969 - a day I still celebrate as my second birthday. That day the company came very close to walking into a well prepared ambush. At one point I was laying on my back watching the vegetation being shredded a foot above my face and thinking “What Am I Doing Here?” Could I be excused for the rest of the afternoon? No chance! I had a job to do and I did the best I could.
At the same time, 1LT Dan Bertram with the CP was under intense enemy fire and was fighting back and directing fire where it was needed most. The entire Company and the FO Team performed in the best traditions of the United States Army and the Cavalry.
The days I served with Tall Comanche I count among the best days of my life. We “Band of Brothers” served our nation, our families, our brothers and our selves with valor and honor.
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Updated May 11, 2002