It only got worse...

I had the good fortune to be the XO for "A" Battery  for a period of time that defies my memory for a start and and/or end date – maybe somewhere around April to June, 1968.  But I sure was there. 

I had the misfortune to be there when the battery was on LZ Incoming.  There is another story posted here, with pictures, of what happened when we had visitors from the North and they brought RPGs with them. And AKs, of course. It was so exciting to have them visit that we broke out the "beehives" (anti-personnel round)! 

Exciting as it was when LtCol Bobzien and Col Dewhirst visited, I have to say that the North Vietnamese Army visits were even more exciting!  After all, they weren't just dropping in for a visit and inspection, then to hop on a moving slick to get back to the rear area. No, the NVA came to stay a while.  The size and shape of the hilltop and the plethora of bunkers and 105mm guns made space for visitors an item of concern so we did everything we could to discourage visits and, of course, any thoughts of staying once the visit actually started.  While we were successful in discouraging them, the North Vietnamese Army was quite persistent in trying to come back over a period of several days. 

They used constant sniper fire and mortars as a way to remind us that they weren't leaving the area.  Occasionally, they would creep close and fire a RPG or two into our area.  Fire missions were times when everyone, cannoncockers and grunts alike, was on the highest alert. T he low “whump – whoomp” coming from the back of nearby hills signaled mortars firing at us and everyone ducked behind the parapet walls as we did our best to continue firing the mission with the possibility of a mortar round landing inside the parapet.  Just about everything and everyone was inside a sandbagged wall of some sort at all times.  The sandbagged gun pits, sandbagged crew bunkers, sandbagged ammo bunkers, perimeter sandbag walls, sandbagged blast barriers ~ they all created tight compartments to contain an explosion if a mortar landed and hopefully reduce or eliminate casualties.  Only two areas weren't well protected: the crapper and the aiming circle.  No one ever used the crapper during the day – that would have been a sure way to have a sniper get you.  The aiming circle was protected on the side exposed to the perimeter but the other side was exposed; I had not had time to protect that side yet. Casualties were amazingly light for most of the attacks. 

In most ways, we were as ready for anything we could imagine as we could be.  Mortars were the most persistent worry since, if they hit our hill, they would either land in one of the gun pits or on one of the bunkers.  If you were in the gun pit when a mortar arrived, you were screwed.  If you ran for a bunker when you heard the first muffled “whoomp,” you felt a stab of terror if the mortar hit your bunker; the bunker roof might collapse and bury you alive.  Hard to figure out which was better; great choices here. 

This experience I am relating was as close to actual combat as our BC (Battery Commander) at the time ever got.   He demonstrated his expertise in “bunker hugging” at every conceivable threat.  He was an expert at sending me or any of the other men in the battery out into the "action".  He stayed inside with the excuse that “we have to protect the command structure”.  Our BC didn't seem to think highly of the FOs or their RTOs, the enlisted men assigned to the FOs as their radio operators.  They were nuisances that required him to write letters of condolence when they got killed.  His nickname was established as “The Mole” before I got to the battery. I thought the nickname was funny until we landed on LZ Incoming. 

After a particularly bad night, filled with fire missions and sporadic mortar attacks, I was looking at a destroyed gun pit and talking to the gun crew chief about trying to use the gun for direct fire since the tube overhung the edge of the perimeter and might be a good defense against a ground attack from that side of the perimeter.  Our BC walked up to join the conversation and to countermand my instructions to elevate the gun by placing the wheel rims [tires were burned off] on sand bags.  Just as he started berating me in front of the crew chief, we heard the dreaded sounds of mortars firing from the backside of the hill facing that side of the perimeter.  There must have been 10 quick rounds fired from multiple mortar tubes.  The crew bunker for that gun pit was still standing and I dove for the opening, barely clearing the blast "door", a wall of sand bags.  The BC was right behind me.  He curled into a fetal position on the wall opposite the opening and I crouched against a side wall as the mortars began hammering our hilltop. 

You've heard of "the silver bullet" that can kill vampires?  We had the equivalent: "the golden BB".  The golden BB is an impossibly  lucky shot that has incredible consequences.  It's like a bullet fragment that ~accidentally~ lodges in the transmission of a helicopter, causing it to crash. The crew of the destroyed gun had left a number of opened and assembled 105mm rounds at the edge of the still-standing ammo bunker, ready for immediate use.  They were in the bunker but, with an unbelievably lucky shot, a golden BB could hit them. 

One of those mortars was also a golden BB. 

We didn't know it was a golden BB until a huge explosion – enormously louder and larger than the mortar rounds - shook the entire hill with a thunderous roar. What ever exploded was right on the other side of the blast door protecting the bunker. That was maybe 5 feet from me! At first, I couldn't imagine what had happened but I began to develop some ideas when, in quick succession, two more huge explosions again shook the bunker and the hill. When the ringing in my ears backed off a bit, I realized that the golden BB had somehow ignited the ammo bunker right next to the bunker where I was hiding. Escape out of the one entrance led right in to the ammo bunker so I was trapped. 

Worse, I was trapped with the less-than-gallant BC! More rounds exploded. Each time, the bunker shook more and began swaying a little, too. The bunker entrance was collapsing slowly and was already much bigger than it was when I dove in.  Soon, the blast wall would either be blown away or be too small to cover the expanding bunker opening. There were over 150 rounds in that bunker before the explosions started.  Maybe 20 had exploded. I told the BC that we had to get out of there before the bunker collapsed on us. He still huddled there in a fetal position, shivering violently with fear.  As I looked over at him, the real horror of the situation occurred to me: after all of the close-to-death experiences I had with Charlie Company, I'm looking at dying in a collapsing bunker with the battery commander. Killed by a golden BB.  And dying with this particular BC.  It was that last part that was just so unacceptable. 

I couldn't go out the entrance but I had to find an escape or I would die right there.  The ceiling has steel PSP plates so that wasn't a possible escape. I needed to go through a double-sandbag wall.  There wasn't another way.  There weren't any tools in the bunker. The gun crew had completely emptied it. 

The only thing I could find that might work was a small, 2” pocket knife – the kind that were referred to as a "gentleman's pocket knife".  Lacking anything else and getting a little spooked by the BC who is crying openly now, I began carefully digging away at a section of sandbagged wall.  The 2” blade was too small and too delicate for vigorous digging so I carefully used the knife to slice into the hard packed dirt in the sandbag, scooping out the loosened dirt with my other hand. It was tortuous and so very slow but I was making headway......while the explosions continued shaking the bunker into collapse. 

Since I'm writing this now, it's obvious that I eventually did cut a small hole just big enough to wiggle through.  The BC wanted to go first but I told him to go fuck himself as I wiggled through the hole and then low-crawled away as quickly as I could.  He then stayed glued to me.  By the time we got behind another bunker, the bunker we just escaped from collapsed in the blast of two or three rounds going off at the same time. 

This BC never thanked me for saving his life with my little knife and my determination to not die in that bunker with him.  He did give me a very mediocre OER when he left the unit – but he always was a little prick.

Lt Bert Landau