On occasion I have been asked what my role was in Vietnam. There has been so much written about the Vietnam War that I generally avoid any lengthy discourse on the matter, as my accomplishments pale in comparison to folks who rose to the occasion and earned prestigious awards for unusual valor and super human heroics. I usually begin my response with what I did not do, such as earn a Purple Heart, Silver star or distinguished Flying Cross. I did manage to earn a handful of medals, the usual stuff like an Air Medal and Bronze Star, along with a Vietnam Service Medal, and the good conduct stuff that comes with faithfully following the orders of my superiors without fail or question. I was reminded of my less than heroic efforts a few weeks back when the United States Army sent the medals to me in the US Mail, a surprise as I had never formally been decorated. I am guessing their sudden interest in sending the medals resulted from my application for VA benefits as a result of the constant ringing in my ears precipitated by countless artillery fire missions. The VA ruled the ringing, which has plagued me from the day I left Vietnam, was service connected and I can now upgrade my hearing aids at Uncle Sam’s expense. My first trip to a VA Medical facility reminded me with absolute certainty that I have little to complain about, but has led to this piece about what my business was in Vietnam.
My specialty was in field artillery. For those less than indoctrinated in military lore, the Infantry is referred to as the Queen of Battle and the Artillery as the King of Battle. Specifically, my military occupational specialty was 13E, or a Fire Control Specialist, one of the guys who poured over a thick book referred to as a Tabular Firing Table, and relied on a slide rule to compute the mathematical information for the cannoneers to accurately place cannon fire on the enemy. When the Queen of Battle asked for it, the King of Battle would rain hell on the enemy with a precision that is frightful….and deadly. I was assigned to a Fire Support Base, with a battery (6) of 105 howitzers and we stood ready 24/7 to deliver support to an Infantry unit that had established contact (gunfight) with the enemy. The noise associated with a fire mission was terrific, and hearing protection was the last thing on your mind when an Infantry commander screamed “fire mission” into his radio. In addition to supporting an Infantry unit in a gunfight, we also shot missions with crisp names such as H&I (Harassment and Interdiction), and planned fires, at selected enemy choke points, at random, hoping to catch the enemy on the move, and thus disrupting his day. The downside to being on a Fire Support Base is that you are located in a clearing about the size of a football field, or less, surrounded by concertina (a really nasty kind of barbed/razor wire) with a platoon of infantrymen to repel an enemy attack, which made you a prime target in a war where success was measured in body counts instead of real estate. Gunfights with the enemy were quite common, which leads to additional discussion on the use of artillery. There are two broad categories of artillery fire with a number of sub-categories within these groups. The big picture involves indirect fire, where you cannot see the target which may be miles from your location and direct fire, when the enemy is within visual range. When the enemy attempted a probe into your base, the infantrymen would pour deadly small arms fire into them, and the howitzers would drop the tubes much like a giant shotgun and fire into their ranks with shells with fuses set to explode in their faces. Did I mention devastating and deadly? When the fighting was up close and personal, slide rule guys grabbed a rifle and joined the fight from the perimeter of the fire base.
So, it was with a burning interest that I visited the battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam, battlefields where virtually all of the artillery fire was direct fire, orchestrated by superb officers and gun crews who were magnificently trained to maximize the rate of fire into the very faces and bodies of advancing Infantryman. By today’s standards the artillery pieces were crude, but horribly effective. The projectiles were either solid, explosive (think shrapnel) or grape and canister, consisting of some 17 round steel balls in a container, each the size of a golf ball. Grape, on advancing soldiers conveniently lined up in rows, was devastating with each ball very capable of dismembering soldiers in several advancing ranks. The carnage was such, that one Union officer remarked the air around the advancing confederates was a “pink mist”, a term that lives on in the annals of warfare today.
The tin-type photograph accompanying this writing is of a Civil War cannoneer, the only picture of this soldier in existence today. The photograph was taken on a sweltering summer day, and the soldier was leaning on his equally hot cannon for support as sweat soaked his wool confederate blouse. The photo was taken at Antietam, not far from the sunken road where hundreds of his fellow soldiers were slaughtered by a superior Union force. By now, you have recognized the soldier as the writer of this piece, who for awhile, ate, slept and breathed artillery in another war many years later. I can only hope, and sincerely believe, that faithfully following the orders of my superiors, without fail or question was my biggest contribution to the execution of this war.
History has clearly demonstrated that our elected leadership can and has failed, on occasion, the American fighting man or woman. My hat is off and the debt is great to those who answered the call and fought to the death for the cause that was at hand. They answered the call and faithfully executed the orders of their superiors, without fail or question.
That, my friends, is what I did in the war.