SSgt David P. Spears {KIA}
Chief of Smoke
Bravo Battery

by Stephan Zacharias

Attempting to capture the details of his grandfather's death

My grandad was a career Army man having enlisted originally in August of 1951 at the age of 20. He served at least two tours in Korea.  He also was stationed in Columbus, GA at Fort Benning, before being assigned to Schofield Barracks with Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 9th Artillery, 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry. This was the unit he served with in Pleiku Province. He was the Staff Sergeant, known as the "Chief of Smoke" because he led the firing battery. He had a friend in that unit who was one of the "cannoncockers" Hank Thorne (I don't know his rank, all I know is that he was manning a howitzer on the morning my grandad was killed.)

SSgt Spears left for Vietnam from Hickam Air Force Base in December of 1965, as part of OPERATION BLUE LIGHT, known as one of the largest and longest airlifts of personnel and cargo into a combat zone in military history. As part of the 3rd Brigade, he had been one of four thousand soldiers deployed to Vietnam's Central Highlands. They established base camp near Pleiku. The 25th ID is reported to have brought nine thousand tons of equipment with them. The 3rd Brigade was the first from the 25th Infantry called to action. Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 9th Artillery provided direct support for the infantry. Battery B spent most of its time in the field engaging the NVA who patrolled the Cambodian border.

This unit was a part of Operation Paul Revere 1, (apparently there were 4 phases).  It was during this Operation that my granddad was killed. There are many different reports as to how he was killed. Initially the local press in Tennessee (where he was from) reported that he was killed by one of his own shells apparently defective: "S-Sgt. David P. Spears was operating a 185 millimeter howitzer against a hostile force when a round detonated prematurely, the War Department notified his wife." -- Newspaper from Rogersville, Tenn.

However, the account of that days events, July 24, 1966 by the commanding officer at the time, a Capt Jack Osborne, differs greatly from this newspaper account. According to Capt. Osborne, my granddad was the very first casualty of Battery B, 2/9th, 3 Bde, 25th ID. This was an account that he gave in a letter he sent my grandmother regarding the death of my granddad: "
Sgt. Spears was the acting chief of firing battery and was sleeping in my tent, along with myself and my medic, a Sp4 Riddle.  At about 5:30 am there was a single explosion which woke me up. Sp4 Riddle informed me that he was hit, and as Sgt Spears was not yet awake, I immediately checked him. He was, of course, hit and unconscious.  Sp4 Riddle, although wounded in the hip, and myself, both immediately rendered first aid to your husband and within five minutes there was a doctor and three senior medics in attendance to him.  My XO, Lt Duffy and at least nine other men in my battery gave blood for immediate transfusions. In all everything humanly possible was done but your husband's wounds were too great and he died shortly without having ever regained consciousness.  After a complete check, it is my opinion and the opinion of the Army that he was killed by a single, incoming, enemy mortar round.  It was thought at first that it could have been a muzzle burst from one of our own guns. But after a complete investigation, I am firmly convinced that it was not ."

Yet, several years ago this same Capt had a conversation with my mother where he revealed that he had lied to my grandmother in this letter.  According to the new account by Capt Osborne, he says that my grandad died not die peacefully.  "He had been sound asleep but when he was hit he did wake up.  I lied about that.  There was no sense at the time to talk about the suffering and wounds he had. It wouldn't accomplish anything.  I hope you can forgive me for that lie." According to Capt Osborne, SSgt. Spears suffered a lot of pain and was administered some pain medication that helped somewhat.

Osborne continued: "It was just before daylight. We were all sound asleep. It was pitch-dark. It was rainy. Raining hard. It was during the monsoon season. I did not hear the round go off. You get so accustomed to the noise. We fired off what is called harassing and interdictory fire. One of the gun sections fired every fifteen to twenty minutes, all night long. It was just to harass the enemy to keep them awake. Well, we learned to sleep through it, and I'm sure they did, too. This round went off and I wasn't even conscious of it. I was still asleep. But your dad (SSgt Spears) started hollering, "Doc! Doc! Doc! I'm hit! I'm hit!"  Well, I started to turn over and I felt a good pain and knew I was hit with something. I immediately grabbed my rifle, thinking there was somebody in the tent. We'd had that happen before. I shined the light around and there was nothing. And the medic said, "I've been hit, too, sir." But your dad had taken on the worst.  I needed the medic's help, so I asked, "How bad are you hit?" and he said, "I'm all right. I was just hit in the butt." He was hit right square in the butt.  It was pretty deep wound, too. Anyway, we got over to your dad and got him calmed down so we could talk to him. You could see his right side that he had some small intestines that were coming out. Well, you're taught how to treat that. We put some bandages over it and checked him out hastily. And, unfortunately, there was no doctor in the LZ with us. So we got on the radio, he came up, and they took him then." Osborne said the intestinal wounds were not enough to have killed SSgt Spears. "We didn't know how badly he was injured because the doctor had got there and we didn't do a real good check on Dave. What happened was, one [shrapnel] had come up through the cot and hit him in the back and entered his lung. He had severe bleeding in his lungs. The doctor found this. But we couldn't get a dust-off out there because it was dark. And it was raining pretty hard."

According to the duty officer's report that day it records that at 5:35 am a call came from 2nd Battalion, 9th Artillery and reads: "B/2/9 requests DUSTOFF.  Short rd or burst fired H & I mortar resulting in 3 casualties: 1 litter, 1 walking, and 3rd man down, had injuries: extent unknown. DUSTOFF ASAP when weather clears."

Capt Osborne, however, states that it may not have been due to the weather that the Dustoff was having issues: "They (dustoff) were taking too long to get down there. I was really pissed. And you don't piss off somebody who has five big guns. I dropped a round in the middle of the LZ. That got their attention. They came, finally, after we dropped that short round. But on the way out, they ran out of fuel and had to go back.  They'd failed to refuel the night before. The pilot got court-martialed over it."
Although, Capt Osborne did an investigation on the shrapnel from SSgt Spears' body and found it to be unknown, the Army concluded that the shell came from one of the "five big guns", that a shell from one of the unit's guns hit a tree near the middle of camp and exploded and it was shrapnel from that explosion that killed SSgt Spears. Osborne denies this official report and insists the shrapnel came up from the ground, not down from the sky.

Prior to SSgt. Spears' death, the Army did not place sandbags around the tents that may have prevented the injuries that took my grandfather's life. According to Osborne: "Your dad's death (SSgt Spears) saved a lot of lives in Vietnam." Apparently a subsequent investigation had included a report of what they could do to prevent further casualties, and from that point on they began to place sandbags around the outside of tents.

Although Osborne insisted that there was a court martial of the dustoff pilot, my family has been unable to find any documentation that could support this claim. And the very few men that my mom has been able to contact from Battery B that would talk about this incident say they cannot remember any investigation into the death of SSgt. Spears or the court marital that Osborne referred to. Another man in the 2/9 who served with my grandfather, a John Nash, says the unit moved extensively from Kontum Province to the rubber plantation to the Ia Drang Valley.

Senator Gordon Smith, of Oregon had a congressional investigation launched several years ago and this was the analysis reported by researchers at the National Archives at College Park:
"Our staff searched all the records we have in our custody that might have contained information regarding the incident in which SSgt David  P. Spears was killed. There are no records of the 2/9th artillery for this time frame. The daily journal and daily situation report for the 3rd Brigade/25th Infantry Task Force mention the accident. Copies are enclosed. The task force was attached to the 4th Infantry Division at the time. Their records provide no additional information, either in the division general staff or division artillery files.  The records of the next higher echelon, First Field Force Vietnam, reiterate the information that was passed to them by the brigade. The G-3 daily journal reads: "Fm 3/25 LT. Powell, to MAJ Cropper, 240525--B/2/9 had a 105 muzzle burst. Rslts: 3 wounded, 1 serious, 2 minor. Medvac requested but weathered in. No additional details." The records of the United States Army Vietnam Provost Marshal and the 18th Military Police brigade do not cover this time frame. Line of duty investigations and summary court martial are not included among our records. "

PostScript: Thank you for taking your time to review this information regarding my granddad, SSgt. David P. Spears.  Like you I strongly believe in recording history for future generations. One of my favorite quotes I heard a few years back: "Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here." Thank you so much!
--Stephan P. Zacharias


Information offered by Sgt Joe Cook, member of the FDC of "B" Battery:
I recall it happened in daylight (late afternoon) and in fact "Doc" (our medic) came running to where I was, to get his first aid kit or ran by me with with his kit. I recall that at the time we all knew it to be a tree burst from our own gun. Now many started to run to the tent that Spears was in. I stayed away as I was on duty in FDC.   I do not right now, remember any Dustoff being called.  I do remember going down to that end of the Battery later and looking at the tree that was hit.

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