Lt Don Keith

I was an FO with B-1-35.  I was in the field for 11 months because my "replacements" were sent to replace FOs who were KIA.   I played a dual role, FO and Platoon Leader due to the shortages in the company.    Returned for a 2nd tour with the 173rd Airborne. 



My First Night in a combat zone

After catching a ride to the location of B/1/35 where I was assigned as the new FO for their company, it was getting dark.  We were settling in for my first night in a combat zone.  I asked Captain Neeland if he wanted me to shoot DEFCONS (defensive concentrations) to protect the unit location with pre-planned artillery fires.  I was sent out without a map or compass.  On top of that, I did not  have the FOGGIEST  idea of where the hell I was.  I got this "LOOK" from Neeland. He said, "We don't shoot DEFCONs."  I went on to tell him (despite what my predecessor told him) the 2/9th artillery tubes were OK.   I knew better then to try and bullshit him by saying they had been replaced.  That would just make him believe the prior BS that the tubes were worn out. Well, we were not overrun that night. 

The next day, I got my 1st assignment.  Capt Neeland said, "You're going down to the valley to the 1st Platoon to replace the FO. We can now  get a bird in to take him out.  Just go down that trail; it will lead you to the platoon.  It's about 3 clicks. He then added, "Don't let the 4 Dinks upset you, they are dead."   I said, "When do we go?" He told me any time I wanted to start out.  I asked who was going with me and he looked at me and said, "Just you."  Big   joke, ha ha.  He said he couldn't send anyone with me and it was safe for me to go alone.  Well, then... HOW COME THERE WERE 4 DEAD ENEMY  SOLDERS IF IT WAS SO SAFE??? 

I shit you not, I did go down that trail alone, my 4th day in country,  no radio, no as grass.  I was told they would be looking for me. Sure, just shoot the new guy that was scared shitless or just maybe they would smell the fear before I got to them.  Well, I found all 15  of the grunts that made up their 1st platoon. An E5 Sergeant was in charge and the FO I was replacing was waiting for me.  I didn't get the old FO's name, just his compass and map.  He loaded on the chopper and was gone.  I had been told  he was to stay 3 days to show me the ropes.  Just as well that he left, I guess, for if he was scared about the worn out tubes, he wouldn't be much use to me. The good ol' Sergeant took me under his wing and I was on my way to pound the enemy with so many rounds out of  those "good old 105mm worn out tubes" from the best Artillery unit in Vietnam, the 2nd of the 9th.

Apparently, No One Read the Book

In a book about the L-19 Bird Dog reconnaisance aircraft entitled "A HUNDRED FEET ABOVE HELL" The pilot instructs the Back Seat Guy to never to FIRE THE M16 out the back window.  He says that the shells can come back in and jam the flight controls. So just about every day I would fire on automatic  out the back windowI also dropped grenades  out the window.  The pilots I flew with never mention and "cautions or problems".  I wondered if they ever read the LESSONS LEARNED?  I didn't know this until 2014 when I read the book.


A near disaster

My first day at the new AO to relieve the Marines (who were being sent further north to the DMZ). An incident that stands out in my mind is a close call on the 1st day that B/1/35 landed at the new AO. We were choppered  to an LZ then told to walk to a bridge to take up night positions.  I was given the arty net  that included the Marines push.  I got on the net and I hear a proposed fire mission being called on "troops in the open".   There was talk about wondering if any "friendly" were in area, for it looked like a large, well equipped unit. Of course it was!  It was the US Army taking over the new AO from them.   I called and in the clear said we were just hooked in and at a bridge to spend the night. The Marines Arty  or FO was the last to get the word, but after checking, found out  it was the grunts of the 35th.

A correct azimuth makes a lot of difference

After 5 air strikes, including a napalm bomb that landed short of the target, 105mm, 155mm, 8 inch and 4 deuce mortars, the battlefield is hard to see with all the smoke and then nightfall coming. I was shifting artillery around in the village. "C" Company was at the north and west in blocking positions. I was dead tired, so the FO from "C" Company took over.  I got some needed rest and then rejoined the Artillery net to once more take the lead role in the artillery, hitting the village to keep the enemy pinned down and off balance so they could not slip out in the cover of darkness.  I thank the artillery gods I only requested one round at a time for the 1st round hit right in the middle of the first platoon. I called for a check fire to find out what went wrong. All I can think of is, "my error, an FO error" . 

When I 1st started calling in the artillery, my azimuth was looking west. So, the FDC charts were oriented west.  My "add commands" were west and my shifts left and right, which have to be north and south.  The relieving FO would correctly change his azimuth to looking east and the "add" would be east and the shifts would be north and south. Well, guess what? I woke up and overlooking the battlefield, I wanted to bring in the artillery to the north so I called for an "add" and a "right" . I did not call for a change of azimuth direction.  I was not thinking now the FDC would just use the one the other FO had used.  The result was the 1st round hit right in the middle of the first platoon at the leading edge of our most northern  line, no one was hurt just scared by the crazy FO.  

That, however, was not the only error of the night.  We had a Spooky gunship hit the front line later, resulting in one KIA and 2 WIAs.  The pilot just couldn't see the flares we had put out to mark our front line.


Time to get going, guys!

For all of our "rear area warriors" in the Pleiku district, there was a very unusual morning reveille conducted.  Instead of the typical bugle blowing and some barrel-chested senior NCO shouting "Fall Out", a helicopter was sent airborne and it flew low over the whorehouse district.  That was the signal to the guys banging the local girls that it was time to give it up and get back to the base.  As a "co-pilot" air observer on these morning flyovers, it was a common sight to see the guys scurrying to their vehicles and the girls waving at our helicopter as we flew overhead.


Village Battlegrounds: The Untold Story
The war in the villages the world never knew

Fortified Villages:  One of the enemy's favorite battlegrounds was the fortified village.  This consisted of several hamlets, which have been prepared with extensive fighting positions, trench works, connecting tunnels and spider holes.  The fighting bunkers  often had 5 to 7 feet of overhead cover and could take the direct hit of a 155mm round.  The bunkers were placed to cover avenues of approach into the village and are interspersed throughout the village to cover trails, approaches, etc.  Many of the huts had a fighting bunker in one corner.  Tunnels connected the bunkers and trenches allowing the enemy to disappear and reappear firing from another location.  Trees, shrubs, and even the earth itself were re-shaped to conceal these positions.   At first glance there seems to be no logic or method to their defensive works.  However, upon closer investigation, one found an intricate, well-planned defensive position that took advantage of the existing  cover and concealment, natural barriers, and avenues of approach into and within the village.

The enemy elected to use a hamlet or a village as a battleground for several reasons:
1. He expected to inflict enough casualties on US troops during the attack to justify his making a stand.
2. The average 19-year-old grunt had a natural aversion to fire upon villages and populated areas.
3. The village offered the VC/NVA a "labor source" to prepare the fortification.
4. The open valleys and coastal lowlands the villages contained offered a great deal of cover and concealment.
5. The hamlets and villages were usually spread out and their arrangement offers many avenues of escape.

The "plan of attack" was to allow the "grunts" to get as close as possible before opening fire, usually 15 to 25 meters.  It was "hugging tactics" so we could not effectively use artillery or TAC air.  The enemy felt if he could inflict several casualties in his initial burst that our soldiers would become involved in trying to get the wounded and KIAs to the rear for evacuation.  He believed that the grunts would start worrying more about getting their wounded buddies to safety than about the battle.  They are "easy targets" and he was correct.

What We Believed:  We were told all bunkers were fighting positions, never go by one without putting a grenade in it.  You could call for the village folks to come out, but in the middle of a battle, being scared and wanting to get out of the shooting, artillery and TAC air strikes, fat chance that would happen.  Well, as you can guess, a lot of village folks were killed along with the enemy.  Truth was...the bunkers were village protection against air attack, artillery, and smoke.  We also used lots of napalm, so it was better to be in a bunker than in a grass or wood hut.

Language Barrier:  We thought all Vietnamese understood the English language.  Just tell us where the enemy are and we will protect you.  Sure...but...what about after we left?   We had 105mm artillery rounds that contained 1,000 to 2,000 psychological operation leaflets...the "Cheu Hoi" safety pass.  What we didn't know was if the villagers were found by the enemy to have the pass, they were shot or put to death for possession of the pass.  So, in effect, the "pass" was the "paper of death"; it was better to wipe your ass with it if you lived in a village.  The enemy also had theirs (psy-war "passes"); however, we didn't believe their bullshit so, why would they?

Our Tactics:  We used PSYOPS teams to broadcast instructions directing the people to gather at a particular location in or outside the village.  Then one of our platoons would enter the village to check for the enemy.  All left in the village were, of course, the enemy.

Searching the Villages:  A thorough, organized search must be conducted in the occupied villages because the enemy went underground and hid in their numerous concealed spider holes and tunnels.  I believed it was imperative to search wells, hedgerows, bamboo groves, and, for sure, livestock pens.  However, I could not get the grunts to search the livestock pens because the job was too shitty.  I used smoke grenades, dropped them into the holes and tunnels, and sure enough, the smoke would come out of the air holes in the bamboo and the pig pens.  We found lots of weapons that way.

Enemy's Timing:  I found most of the action the enemy initiated was late in the afternoon.  That gave him a few hours to inflict as many casualties as he could and then escape after dark.  He didn't have enough ammo to conduct a sustained defense nor could he do a resupply.  So, after searching all day long in the heat, most of the grunts flopped out, got careless, and...surprise!  We were attacked.  More than once I had to wake up the guys in the village goofing off.

We Were Careless:  The troops also had a complete disregard for the skills of the enemy.  They were "dinks", "gooks", couldn't shoot, poorly equipped, wouldn't stand and fight.  I think that 58,000 guys on "The Wall" know the difference.  We, on the other hand, were "supermen".    Except...I found poor noise discipline, talking, shifting positions, slamming of weapon bolts at ambush areas.  Once I had to wake up a grunt that was sleeping in a hammock on the front porch of a hooch.  We left the night positions full of C-rations, loose rounds, and, in one case, a box of ammo.   Hand grenades, claymore mines were left in night locations.   Troops walked by lots of artillery shells every day.  As an FO, I carried material to blow them up.  I had the guys call me to blow them up, but lots of times we had to move out and did not have the time.  Well, the next time, they blew up as a booby-trap.

Sighting The Enemy:  One major belief was that the enemy wore black.  In the "free fire zones", anyone running around in black "pj's" were enemy, so they were fired upon.   If there were any workers in the woods that had not heard of our free fire zones were regarded as the enemy.  I wondered how they were supposed to be told about the zones.  From the local government?

Tensions Cause Terror:  You had to be there to "experience" the tension and the reactions from the troops.  If we got a sniper round from a village, the next thing was that we were calling in the artillery: the 105mm, the 155mm, the 8-inch, and the mortars.  We used lots of White Phosphorous (WP).  I remember standing on a hill looking at a village we had a battle in.  A hook (helicopter) brought in a load of LAWS (M72, Light Anti-Tank Weapon).  We started firing at cows, huts, anything we could hit.  Our mood was "complete destruction".  After several air strikes with napalm, it was not likely that the farmer could rebuild or replant the fields.  Of course, that was not on our minds at the time.  Then you have the Agent Orange to insure that the farmer never planted for the NVA or the VC.  That was not our concern then either.

Women Soldiers:  I believe that our upbringing in the US was that we would protect our girlfriends, moms and women in general.  It was so hard to picture a young girl as an enemy.  Yes, it's true, women were in combat against us!  One day, our "point man" was killed by a woman who was the enemy's "point man" coming down a trail.  He froze...she didn't!  The soldier next in line killed her so I know what happened all too well.  I also saw a bunker on 6 March 1967 after a battle in a village where a woman with a baby was feeding a belt of ammo into a machinegun that had just killed my RTO.  {See my tribute to Sp4 Stephen Peck above}  Do you think we were prepared to fight like this?  {See entry below: "Women as Fighters"}

Why My Lai?  Poor leadership.  At the most crucial level, the squad there just simply did not have enough experienced junior NCOs.  Over half the squads in Vietnam were led by Specialist Fours (Sp4).  This is not to say that they weren't good.  However, most had just come over from AIT (Advanced Individual Training in Infantry) and lacked a tested military background.  I walked with a "platoon" of seventeen grunts (supposed to be thirty), so the squads of the platoon were always short-handed.  MAJOR POINT:  the unit involved was getting hit day-after-day by snipers, booby-traps, etc.   The area involved was firmly in control of the VC, booby-traps located everywhere, and kids following the troops to report their location.  On 16 March 68, the men of "C" Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division, entered the My Lai village, they became a mob in killing 300 civilians.  It was a tragic event, but not unheard of in past wars.

Elephants As Delivery Vehicles
There are no limits in unconventional warfare

After my FO duties, I was sent to Pleiku in the highlands, where I was a bird dog L19 backseater. One day when we were searching  for rocket positions and checking trails, I noticed an elephant loaded with boxes going up a trail.  Well, the pilot  had a full rack of smoke and white phosphorus rockets, he rolled in and put a smoke round right up the ass of the elephant.   We could track the elephant by the smoking rear end.  Now you know why there is a new highway in in the highlands, that elephant was better then a rome plow.  After about a 1/2 mile run, there was a huge explosion, in this instance, a base camp.  I conclude that the rocket cooked off the munitions.

Women as Fighters

Six hundred women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War (see "The Forgotten Grave"). Eight hundred thousand Russian women fought in WWII; 84 were awarded the "Hero of the Soviet Union" medal.  Two were air aces in the battle of Stalingrad, flying old bi-planes.   Women in combat? Hard to believe?   My own experience in Vietnam was two (enemy) women manning machine gun bunkers on March 6, 1967. We lost seven killed in action and several wounded. Some young women were snipers and in one case a point woman on her patrol. She came down the trail and our point man froze. He was not trained to fire on a woman, and he was wounded. 

Women in combat? I say, if you're trained, "Go, girl!"  


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