The "Army/Navy Game" moves to the water


Naval gunfire used to mean fire support from Navy ships that we sometimes used to supplement field artillery. I may have given it new meaning on 11Sep67. In my world, Naval gunfire could mean artillery you used to shoot at Navy ships!

On the afternoon of the second day after I arrived in Company C, 1/35th, Ed Thomas, my ostensible mentor, left and went back to the 2/9th Arty HQ. I was the new FO and, in theory, could do the job.   I’m not sure who was the FO before I got there– but I think he was killed – Ed was just temporary.  My world promptly fell apart after Ed left.  Fortunately, I didn’t take anyone with me on that particular falling apart. 

To make sure I wasn’t a complete incompetent, we had done a few fire missions and Ed had coached me on how to survive in the field….things like building up to carrying a full load on a long haul instead of trying to carry an 80 lb backpack and hump with the company for 20 clicks.  He kept telling me to keep my head down, do NOT EVER panic, NEVER lose track of my map location and, if I did those things, he was sure I would be fine.  After he had been gone a few hours, I was certain that Ed was wrong.

Right after darkness fell, Capt Dave Collins, the CO and also fairly new, announced that we would have a "mad minute", where everyone lined up on the perimeter and fired their M-16 or M-60 at the max rate of fire off into the darkness.  So I took my M-16 ~ a weapon that, before Nam I had only seen pictures of ~ chambered a round the same way I saw everyone else doing and pulled the trigger as I aimed down range. Then I took the safety off, pointed down range and tried again. Nothing happened.  I stood there in my brand new, almost crisp and shiny new jungle fatigues with my brand new boots ….. and a dead M-16, completely dumbfounded as to why it would not fire.  That was the day I learned about bent rounds, chambering bent rounds and how they almost always jam the rifle. Things were not off to a good start. A couple more events like that and I knew they would send Ed back out.

It was embarrassing, but survivable. I would never allow it to happen again. And it never happened again because I always loaded my own ammo clips after that.  Besides, worse things awaited me later that night. 

After an hour or so passed and it was the darkest part of the night before the moon came out. Capt Collins sent an ambush platoon out into the blackness to block any enemy from approaching the bridge we were supposed to be guarding.  I think it was 2LT Kerry Nogel's 2nd platoon.  Weeks later, before Kerry stepped on a land mine and became a paraplegic,  Kerry and I achieved brief fame by killing an NVA soldier with the 3 smoke pods from the  "first round smoke" command I had fired to support him as he advanced towards the tail end of an enemy force. 

{Sidebar: As a precursor to continuing, I should point out that this particular story appears to be favorite war story for Ed Thomas [the guy, I remind you, who trained me].   During meetings and reunions, Ed brings complete strangers over to meet me, demanding that I tell them this story as he struggles (unsuccessfully) to not laugh.   Maybe he’ll stop if I write it up!  Nah, he enjoys it too much.}

To make this a little shorter, I’ll skip to the end and then tell you a little about why it happened. 

On that night, I used 105mm and a 155mm batteries to attack a US Navy LST running up the coast in the South China Sea on a covert operation with a battalion of Republic of Korea Marines on board. That’s right; I shelled a Navy ship while it was on a mission. When the Navy got out of range, I continued the attack using gunships.  It was a good attack ~ Hell it was a great attack ~ in the worst possible conditions – pitch black, no lights on the ship somewhere out in the blackness of the South China Sea.  The only way to judge the location and/or distance was to look for the places where starlight wasn’t twinkling in the water. And we were about a mile away from the water. The Officer’s Basic Course at Fort Sill didn’t prepare me for this! I made very good targeting estimates and they worked!  By any measure, it was great shooting. It was also a case of horrible target recognition. Amazingly, no one got killed. I thought I was shooting at 3-5 "junks" escaping with a about a platoon of Viet Cong. 

Back to the beginning: Lt Nogel, while moving to his ambush location, encountered a platoon-sized enemy unit – all in black pajamas and carrying weapons. He chased; they ran towards the coast.  Nogel saw them jump into junks [boats] and push off into the South China Sea. By the time Nogel got to the water’s edge, the junks were out of range.  He could barely see their outline as they began blending into the blackness. I had been listening to the radio and looking at a map to get some idea of what was happening.  The map showed that the junks would be beyond the firing fan of nearby artillery fairly quickly so, if artillery were to be called, I needed to take immediate action. I knew where Nogel was located so I asked him to use his compass and give me a direction to where the junks had gone. By that time, they had already disappeared in the darkness but I had a place and direction to start. With absolutely nothing to justify guessing – after all, I had been in country about 4 days by then – and assuming the junks would move directly out to sea as quickly as they could, I called for fire where I thought they might go. Fuse VT! I "aimed" where I thought something in the water blocked the reflection of stars on the water. Hard to do it and it seemed that the targets were moving up the coast. I didn’t go for "first round smoke"; I went directly into ‘Fire for Effect’ with both batteries, with each one covering a slightly different quadrant around the target area. Reddish black explosions dotted the sky over where I thought the target should be. The sharp ‘CRACK’ of each explosion reverberated through the night. There was a lot of those ‘CRACK’s that night!  Since the junks were at the far edge of the firing fan and I wanted to get my first "kill," I called the 155mm battery FDC and asked them see if they could call for gunships since I didn’t know how to call them. Within minutes, two or three gunships were in the air, headed for me and were getting information on the target. They added that a flare ship was also coming to help with the attack – but the flare ship was heavier and slower so they planned to roll into the attack with the gunships in the lead and without the flare ship if they could find the target. I saw the helicopter’s flashing red beacon lights in the sky as they approached and gave them as much info as I could – including guesswork – on where the junks had gone. The pilot in the lead chopper called excitedly when he could see a "shape in the water!"  I told him that the other junks had to be close. Moments later, we could see the lead ship open up with its miniguns. Two red lines from the lead ship snaked out, arching towards the open sea. “I hit him!” the pilot excitedly exclaimed….just as he fired a 2.75” rocket into the target below.  As I watched, the rocket hit something but the flash wasn’t enough to tell me the shape of the target…..yet. The second gunship rolled in, firing his miniguns at the same area the first gunship had just hit. The third gunship did the same. 

Far away, I could see another chopper approaching – the flare ship. As the first chopper lined up for another pass, the flare ship began dropping parachute flares to illuminate the target – after all, there were other junks out there that we hadn’t hit yet. Far out, the flare ship dropped its first parachute flare. Others followed with regularity as the flare ship raced to the attack. After the 5th or 6th flare, the lead gunship suddenly stopped firing and called that he could make out a much bigger shape in the water than a junk. As the flare ship drew still closer, it was clear that I had been attacking a ship much larger than a junk, running without lights. Artillery and the gunships had done a lot of damage; the wheelhouse was gone!  Apparently, the artillery or the gunships had damaged the ships radios so they couldn’t have called for help or for a "check fire."

The ship had to abort the mission and get into the nearest port for damage assessment and repairs. Unfortunately, that port happened to be right next to the brigade and battalion headquarters in Duc Pho. People were pretty pissed off.  Especially people from the US Navy.  I had damaged one of their ships and had caused the secret mission to be aborted. 

The Battalion S-3 (Operations Officer) called me on the radio and said that he understood how it had happened but that it would be a good idea if I were not available in the battalion area until things quieted down – like maybe a couple of months.  After the damaged ship had been repaired and had left.  After the ROK Marines disappeared. 

It was at least four months before I had a chance [maybe took a chance] to go back to battalion headquarters.  In that time, the brigade and my company went through some extremely difficult time.  Most of us survived but a lot of us didn’t.  No one remembered me shelling the Navy ship…..including me.  But a couple of years ago, I attended my first 35th Infantry Regiment reunion.  It was a shock to see that Dave Collins was alive – after February 9, 1968, I just knew he had not lived to complete the Medivac ride.  But it was a wonderful shock to see him alive and kicking. My first thought, however, when we again saw each other was to exclaim, "Oh my God, I shelled a Navy ship!"  

Ed Thomas must have been nearby because he immediately asked me whether I had sunk any more Navy ships.

Oh, yeah...I never did get any credit for blowing the wheelhouse off that ship, by the way.  And...Ft Sill has yet to call and ask me how I did it.

Lt Bert G. Landau