Ain’t Released Me Yet
Memoirs of a REMF
Copyright© 2016 by Robert B. Martin, IV
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission from the copyright owner, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. I have attempted to recreate events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them.
Break Time Is Over
“These students are going to find out what law and order is all about.”…….…General Robert Canterbury, Commanding General, Ohio State National Guard minutes before his troops fired on students at Kent State University
The Vietnam War escalated once again on the first of May, 1970. President Nixon announced that 30,000 U.S. troops, along with an unknown number of ARVN’s, had invaded Cambodia, long a refuge of the VC and NVA (Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army). He also called anti-war students, “bums blowing up campuses.”
On May 3, 1970, all hell broke loose at Camp Eagle as the NVA retaliated for the Cambodian invasion. More than a dozen 122mm rockets screamed into the camp and several hit the Cobra helicopter pad next to our battalion area. I believe we had just eaten supper, but it was not yet dark. Several of us were hanging out behind my hooch, shooting the breeze. We were looking toward the Cobra pad across the road when one of the “ready birds” (Cobra fully fueled, armed, and ready for immediate takeoff) was hit by a rocket. The cobra exploded in a giant fireball that rose an estimated 200 feet into the air. Another rocket then hit the aviation unit’s ammo dump and set off 3,000 rockets, 100,000 rounds of mini-gun ammunition, and 25,000 rounds of 40mm grenades. The noise was deafening and rounds were flying everywhere. It was like all of the Fourth of July firework shows I had ever seen all compressed together in one show.
Instead of running to the safety of our bunkers, we crouched behind a wall of sandbags and watched. It was spell binding. Even with all of the ordnance exploding and projectiles flying around us, it was impossible not to watch. Six more 122mm rockets flew into the flight line and destroyed all of the remaining Cobras. Another two rockets destroyed the hangar and one more hit and destroyed the underground TOC (Tactical Operations Center). It was over just as quick as it began and no one in our battalion was injured except for SGT Irby. He skinned his shin as he jumped over a cot while running from the hooch to a bunker. Rumor has it that he received a Purple Heart for his “wound.”
The next day, May 4, was another intense day, only we wouldn’t hear about it for another day or two because it happened back in the World. It was the Kent State shooting. Students across the country demonstrated against the war’s escalation after President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Students at Kent State University in Ohio rioted and demonstrated by shattering windows, setting fires, and damaging cars. The next night, students set fire to Kent State’s ROTC building and prevented firemen from extinguishing the fire by seizing the hoses and turning them on the firemen. Governor James Rhodes declared martial law and ordered in the Ohio National Guard to restore order. Rhodes ordered the guardsmen to prevent the students from assembling in groups on the campus until the rioting was over.
Protesters began to stage another antiwar rally on the Kent State campus on May 4 around noon. Several times, the campus police asked the protesters to disburse. Armed National Guardsmen advanced on them after their refusal to disburse. Some of the students began throwing rocks at the guardsmen, who responded by firing tear gas (CS) at the students. Apparently, in all of the confusion, one of the guardsmen “thought” he heard a gunshot, prompting him to open fire on the unarmed students. Other guardsmen followed suit once he began shooting. They fired a total of thirty-five rounds directly into the crowd, which was only about twenty yards away. When it was over, there were four students dead and eleven wounded. This lit the fuse for hundreds of college protests and a May 9 march on Washington, DC. The guardsmen were subsequently tried and found not guilty.
Vice President Agnew said, “Had the rocks not been thrown there would have been no chance of the killing.” In other words, he placed the blame completely on the students.
Neil Young immortalized the tragic event in the song, “Ohio,” referring to the national guardsmen as “tin soldiers.”
That month a Gallup poll asked, “Do you think the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?” Fifty-six percent said, “YES.” In the 21- to 29-year old age group, 61% said “YES.” The tide was turning against the politicians.
On Wednesday, May 6, the National Student Strike began and students on three hundred college campuses began boycotting classes. Over one hundred colleges were closed. All of these antiwar demonstrations in the U.S. were having a profound effect upon the U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. Nobody wanted to die in a war that lacked support back home. About this time was when I learned that the 101st Airborne Division was scheduled to be the last combat division to leave Vietnam. However, troop withdrawals had already diminished the strength of many units to about sixty-five percent.
Still, the war went on and one of our firebases was in trouble the same day the National Student Strike began. FSB Henderson, six miles southwest of Cam Lo in the A Shau Valley near the DMZ was attacked on May 6, 1970, at approximately 0500 hours (5:00 AM) and overrun by NVA sappers. Sappers were well-trained NVA infiltrators who dressed in black and sometimes painted their exposed skin black. They carried high-explosive satchel charges and relied upon stealth to breach the perimeter.
It began with the NVA sappers tossing satchel charges into American foxholes. Many GIs were killed before anyone knew they were being attacked. The NVA outside the firebase’s wire began firing mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine guns as soon as the sappers’ satchel charges began exploding. From beginning to end, the attack lasted forty-five minutes. The sappers targeted the tactical operations center (TOC), the 105mm and 155mm howitzers, and the howitzers’ ammunition dump. The ammo dump explosion was tremendous and it was reported that a firestorm lit up the pre-dawn sky. The U.S. suffered thirty-two KIA and forty WIA. Many of the U.S. casualties were victims of the firestorm generated by the explosion of the ammo dump. This was the highest number of U.S. KIA in Vietnam in one single day for the previous twenty months. Three of the KIAs were from the 2/11th’s Bravo (B) Battery. They were Michael F. Brown, John E. Granath, and David Yeldell. Only fifteen NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers were killed.
One of our battalion medics, Dennis Hughes of B Battery, was sleeping beside the tire of a 155mm howitzer when an explosion blew him into the air. A buddy sleeping near Dennis was killed and Dennis lost his hearing, glasses, and medic’s bag. After he borrowed a pair of glasses from another soldier and scavenged medical supplies from dead medics, he crawled to the aid of two wounded soldiers nearby. One of the soldiers was on fire and Dennis smothered the flames. He continued to expose himself to enemy fire by locating and treating the wounded. He was blown out of a foxhole twice by satchel charges as he was attending an infantryman who had lost both legs to a 122mm rocket. The infantryman was alive when medevac’d off the firebase, but I don’t know if he survived after his evacuation. Dennis was sent home as a result of his wounds. For his actions, Dennis was awarded the Silver Star for Valor and a meritorious 2-rank promotion from PFC (Private First Class) to SP/4 (Specialist 4th Class).
I have since learned that Dennis continued to serve for over twenty years as an Army Reserve Officer with the 477th Medical Company and in 1991 saw service in Operation Desert Storm.
All six of Bravo Battery’s 155mm howitzers were destroyed during the attack. A day or so after the attack, they were transported back to the battalion area where they drew a lot of attention. I went to see them and took a few photos. One of the 155s had a live M-79 grenade wedged next to the tube (barrel) of the gun. A handmade sign on a sheet of typing paper was taped to the barrel of the gun and read, “DANGER, LIVE ROUND -- M-79 Next to Tube” with an arrow pointing toward the grenade. A second sheet of paper simply read, “GRENADE” with an arrow pointing towards the grenade. You had to get very close to read the signs.
The scuttlebutt throughout our battalion placed the blame for the poor base security and ensuing attack on the infantry troops providing firebase security. According to the rumor, the infantry troops on the firebase had a marijuana party the night of the attack. I have no way of knowing if that actually happened or not. I do remember some guys from Bravo Battery saying they pulled their own guard duty because the infantrymen had come in from humping the boonies and were acting like they were on R&R (Rest and Recuperation leave).
I was awarded my second “I Was There” medal amid the mayhem of May on Sunday, May 31, 1970. It was the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service, another excellence in typing award.
June 1970 came and I had managed to make it through ten months in Vietnam. At some undefined point, you became known as a “Short Timer.” I was getting close to my DEROS and ETS (Expiration of Term of Service) and kept a “Short Timer’s Calendar” taped to the door of my rocket box locker. The calendar consisted of columns with the top of the left-most column beginning with the number 365 and counting down one day at a time until reaching zero at the bottom of the right-most column. Upon waking each day, I would X out another number on my calendar. For example, if I marked out number ninety-five, I would have “ninety-four days and a wake-up” left in Vietnam. You became a “two-digit midget” once you reached ninety-nine days and a wake-up. We always knew exactly how many days remained in our tour.
As I have already mentioned, the Army gave an early discharge to anyone with 150 days or less remaining to serve at the completion of their Vietnam tour. For that reason, I had chosen to add 39 additional days to my tour to make certain that I returned to the World with only 150 days remaining on my two-year enlistment. Extending my tour in Vietnam from 365 to 404 days meant I would have to add another 39 days to my short timer’s calendar. That was very hard to do.
On Monday, June 22, 1970, the U.S. halted the use of defoliants, including Agent Orange. On Friday, June 26, 1970, Camp Eagle experienced not one, but two rocket attacks in the same day. More and more NVA troops were successfully infiltrating through the A Shau Valley to the south. I believe they could smell victory.
Continued in Chapter 46, The Orphanage in Hue.…