Published December 21, 2020

Veterans' Stories: Every Day Is A Blessing

© 2020 By Wi-ti-wah

I heard stories about soldiers who were getting short "short timers" during their tours of duty in Vietnam and were spending their final two weeks in base camp out of harm's way, only to lose their lives or get wounded because of a mortar attack or some sort of accident. Fortunately I never witnessed any of these occurrences . . . only heard.

Back in early December 1967, as a member of the Mobile Riverine Force (a joint operation of units of the U.S. Navy Task Force 117 and the 9th Infantry Division) which operated on the Mekong River in the Mekong Delta, Republic of South Vietnam, I was assigned to the 3rd Battalion of the 34th Artillery. Dong Tam was our base camp. We provided fire support to the infantry units of the 9th that were stationed in the delta. Our howitzers fired 105mm rounds from barges that had been converted to carry two howitzers, along with necessary ammo. Our sleeping quarters were also on the barges.

Having spent nearly six months going up and down the Mekong River and its canals, I was a short timer, but I stayed out on a fire support mission until the final two days of my tour before heading back to Bearcat, (9th Infantry Division base camp), to await my flight on the "Freedom Bird" back to the World.

I saw too many short timers just about go crazy during their final two weeks "In Country." So I stayed out on operation as long as I could. I figured that if I kept busy I wouldn't worry about being a short-timer. It worked and I was home for Christmas 1967.

I entered service on April 4, 1966, along with a whole bunch of other draftees from Oklahoma. After a day at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City we were sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas for induction (more paper work, issue of Army type clothes-O.D. in color, burr haircut, shots, etc.), then waited in the barracks for our orders to our next duty station. We received orders to report to Fort Riley, Kansas. We boarded a four engine prop aircraft that flew us to Manhattan, Kansas, then we were bussed to Fort Riley. We left in a sand storm in El Paso and arrived in a snow storm in Kansas.

Upon arriving at Camp Forsythe, we were assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 11th Field Artillery and told that we were being trained to go to Vietnam as a unit of the 9th Infantry Division which had just been activated for this purpose.

Upon completing our eight weeks of basic training at Camp Forsythe, we were then moved to Custer Hill where we began our AIT.

Our unit was trained to fire a 105mm towed howitzer during the rest of our stay at Fort Riley.

Before we left for Vietnam, we were granted a two-week leave. We were reminded that we had been told at the beginning of our training that we were not to tell anyone of our next duty station, South Vietnam.

Of course, everyone already knew of the 9th Infantry Division's Deployment.

In early December we made final preparations for our Vietnam tour of duty.  We boarded a train at Camp Funston and headed for the Oakland Bay area.

We spent the final two weeks of the year on troop ship headed for Vietnam.  We left the docks on a cold morning sailing under the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. We even got to see Alcatraz.

After two weeks aboard ship on the Pacific Ocean, we anchored off Vung Tau, South Vietnam on New Year's eve and went ashore aboard LCMs at sunrise on January 1, 1967. We were greeted by the sounds of the 9th Infantry Division Band, and speeches from general officers welcoming us to Vietnam. With our duffel bags and other combat gear we boarded deuce and half trucks and began our journey to our home away from home, Bearcat.

Sitting on the back of an Army truck, we journeyed for several hours through villages and the countryside along primitive roadways (kind of like our county roads) to base camp. That's the first time I ever got sunburned.

Upon arriving at Bearcat, we went to our assigned area and saw a lot of Army tents (GP Medium), apparently just put up in the area that appeared to have been cleared by a bulldozer, recently. It had. A lot of tree roots and other debris remained on the ground.

Our howitzers and other crew served equipment hadn't arrived yet, so we set about cleaning up our area with machetes, cutting and pulling out the roots.

Our cooks, who had been with us since training began in April, made sure we had a hot meal that evening.

By nightfall, we were all tired and ready for some sleep on the cots that had been set up in the tents.

The cots even had mosquito netting on them.

However, for some of us, we were assigned to berm guard duty, which meant we had to go to the perimeter of the base camp where the bulldozers had pushed the downed trees and we set up listening posts amongst the debris, insects, etc. What a night!

The next day, we continued with the cleanup and our equipment began to arrive. After a couple of weeks at sea, the equipment needed to be cleaned, oiled and some of it re-calibrated.

It was an interesting first week in 'Nam. And our area of Bearcat was beginning to take shape.

After calibrating our howitzers, we moved the  guns into gun pits and test fired them to make sure everything was in working order. We were kept busy doing maintenance, sandbagging the gun pits and digging foxholes.

The first couple of weeks in base camp, a lot of test firing was being conducted by the various artillery and infantry units.

One night . . . No one told us . . . The night sky lit up with flares and it sounded like every weapon, machine guns, grenade launchers, mortars, and small arms, opened up.

We grabbed our weapons and jumped into our foxholes, waiting for the order to return fire. We had to wait because the infantry had patrols out on the perimeter.

The flares coming down created some weird shadows and I could see fellow soldiers dashing around looking for their foxholes. I thought I saw John Wayne and laughed at myself for having such thoughts. I was in my foxhole by myself waiting for the order to return fire.

I heard someone (loud whisper) call my name. I thought I was hearing things. I heard it again. 

"Howell?"

"What?"

"Where are you?"

"I'm over here."

"Don't shoot, I'm coming over."

I heard someone crawling toward me and he dove into my foxhole head first.

It was my sergeant. He low-crawled to my foxhole (because as the gunner on the base gun, I had the phone to the Command Post).

It was about this time when the CP called and said this was only a test exercise on the part of the infantry units. They forgot to give us advance warning.

I asked the sergeant if he actually low crawled all the way from the CP (about 50 yards). He said yes and we busted out laughing. The top sergeant hollered at us and told us to shut up.

From that time on, the sergeant was known as "Low Crawl."

A couple of days later, we received orders for our first mission.

We loaded the howitzers and equipment to our prime movers, 2-1/2-ton trucks (deuce and a half) and convoyed through a jungle. The guy in charge of the M-60 machine gun had it dragged from his hands by a low-hanging tree limb. I grabbed it as it almost hit me. I traded my M-16 for the M-60.

A little further down the road, near the front of the convoy a shot rang out. A possible ambush. I don't know how, but I ended up sitting on the side of the road with the M-60 ready to fire. Of course the whole convoy halted until it was determined that someone just got nervous and accidentally fired a round.

After getting through the jungle and a banana plantation, we stopped and set up our howitzers near a cemetery.

We enjoyed some C-rations, then set up listening posts. I traded the M-60 back for my M-16.

That night, I was laying on my back when I heard what sounded like someone running through the bushes. I rolled over and assumed a prone firing position when I heard someone yelling "Stop, Stop, or I'll shoot." I held my fire as a dog came running out of the bushes and disappeared.

There was a group sigh of relief and a few nervous chuckles.

Next day, we continued to our destination. It took most of the day but we finally arrived late in the afternoon. Along the way, we crossed a wooden bridge. We found out later that the bridge had been mined.

After setting up our howitzers, we enjoyed a hot meal, thanks to our cooks.

We put red and blue lights on our aiming posts and settled down for the night. The infantry provided the listening posts so we enjoyed a little sleep.

The next morning I was up early, dawn before sunrise. In the distance, I could see that a firefight was going on or was it test firing? Not sure, but tracers were flying all over the horizon. It was quit a sight to see.

After a cold c-ration breakfast, the Captain sent word for me to report to the CP.

He informed me that my son, William H. Howell, Jr., had passed away on January 22, 1967.

I was granted emergency leave and a helicopter arrived soon to transport me back to base camp for necessary paperwork for my trip back to Pawnee.

The helicopter was small and was used by forward observers. As we left the fire base, we went straight up for several hundred feet, out of range for any small arms fire, then headed for Bearcat. That was quite a ride.

At Bearcat, the battery clerk and I secured a jeep and we drove to Saigon's Tan Son Nhat International Airport where I caught a flight back to the States. I was out in the boondocks in the morning and flying back to the states that evening.

It was culture shock upon arriving in Vietnam three weeks earlier and culture shock on driving through Saigon on our way to the airport.

On our way to Saigon, we passed by Long Binh (approximately 16 miles from Bearcat), which would become the reception/replacement center for servicemen arriving in and departing from Vietnam. It was also a major ammo depot.

One night, while at a listening post, we heard a big airliner in the distance. It sounded like it was coming in for a landing, headed toward Long Binh. The military air base, Bien Hoa, was a few miles further down the road.

The lights were turned off and the power cut back and we could actually see a silhouette of the airliner and it appeared to be landing on top of us. All of a sudden, the engines roared to life and the lights on the airliner came on and it climbed back into the night sky.

I returned to Vietnam in late February.

Getting back to Vietnam was another adventure. We left Travis Air Force Base. About 30 minutes out over the Pacific ocean, the four prop transport had to turn around because of engine problems and we landed in Oakland. We spent the night there then took off again the next morning. We made it to Hawaii where we refueled and we were off again. We went island hopping the rest of the way. Stopped at Wake Island, then the Philippines. Talk about some GIs happy to get to Vietnam.

We landed at Bien Hoa Air Base, then were bussed to Long Binh. Most of the soldiers were replacements and had to process through Long Binh before reporting to their duty stations.

They said I would have to wait until the next day for a transport to Bearcat. I asked if I could look for a ride to Bearcat since I was returning from leave. They said that if could find a ride then I was free to go. I stepped out of the compound and hitch-hiked. It didn't take long. A truck stopped and took me all the way to my unit at Bearcat.

What a change! The camp was all spruced up and the tents were what we called web tops with wooden floors.

The next four months were spend out on operations, up to War Zone 3, Tay Ninh Province, near the Black Virgin Mountain and other places.

Up by the mountain, which is next to Cambodia, we spent a few days.

We were unloading our gear when a tank, coming through the area, hit a land mine. I was on top of the truck unloading equipment and had just jumped off the other side at that instant. The shrapnel hit the side of the truck. Talk about lucky.

However, one of our men who was working on a gun got hit. There was a "dust off" as the helicopter took him to the hospital. We heard later that he was transported back to the states for further treatment.

We received "march order" one day. We packed our gear, emptied our sandbags, filled in our bunkers. and prepared to move. Then we sat and waited  for our orders to move. "Cancel march order" was our next command as it was getting dark.

We unloaded our trucks and set up our guns again, but didn't have enough time to rebuild our bunkers. That's when the mortars started. They were walking them toward us. Then they stopped. What a relief.

After a sleepless night, we received "march order" again. This time, we hooked up harnesses to the howitzers and those big Chinook helicopters came and transported us to our next fire base, north of the Black Virgin Mountain.

After we set up our guns, the trucks finally arrived with all our equipment.

The monsoons came while we were there. There wasn't a dry place to be found.

After a couple of weeks there, we returned to Bearcat for a little down time.

There were operations just about every week. One week, we were stationed at Bien Hoa Air base for security.

After couple more operations, I received orders that my next duty station would be at Dong Tam with the 3rd of the 34th artillery in the Mekong Delta.

Because a lot of replacements were arriving, a bunch of us old-timers from the 1/11th were being re-assigned to different units at that time.

We read the Stars & Stripes newspaper and were aware of what was going on in the Delta. I dreaded the reassignment. Once in the Delta, it seemed that all was quiet and the fighting was going on at the place I had just left.

We had a little air strip at Bearcat and I hitched a ride to Dong Tam on a small cargo aircraft. You know, one of those kind that are supposed to take off and land within 300 feet.

After about 30 minutes in the air, we arrived at the Dong Tam airstrip. First try, we were coming down too fast so the pilot stepped on the gas and we went back up in the air and I could see the trees as we just missed them. The second try, we landed successfully and I was out of that aircraft in a hurry. That was a 300 foot runway.

After reporting in to unit headquarters, I was sent to some bunkers down by the river, where the members of the 34th stayed. The 34th was out on a mission and a Navy boat would transport me to their fire base the next day. The boat was a LCM.

It took about four hours to reach the 34th. The barges with the guns were anchored against the bank of the river.

Upon reporting in I was assigned to the base gun since I was a gunner. It didn't take too long to figure out that we had a problem. Two gunners. Since I was the lowest ranking person on the gun, I became the ammo guy. That was okay with me.

We were still in the learning phase of firing howitzers from a barge on the river. We also had to deal with the tide waters of the South China Sea which affected the accuracy of the howitzers.

The top sergeant assigned me to the radio phone. My job was to relay fire directions from the Fire Direction Center (on another LCM) to the guns in the battery.

I also had to string commo wire from FDC to the each of the guns. With two guns on each barge, space was at a premium. Our sleeping quarters were in the center of the barge between the guns.

We built a small shelter to be placed on the bank of the river near the rice paddies. Ammo boxes were used for the floor, chair and table for the radio phone. We were learning.

One evening, the infantry brought in a couple of captives and set them outside my shelter in the rice paddy. Needless to say, I didn't get much sleep that night. Of course, the infantry kept a guard on them all night, but that still didn't make me feel comfortable.

We later trashed the shelter idea and we set up the radio phone in the sleeping quarters. The problem with this was I couldn't move when the howitzer was firing over my head. The concussion from the guns ruined my ears. Yes, we had earplugs, but it was kind of hard to hear the firing commands from FDC, then relay the commands to the guns.

As time went by on different missions, my duties seemed to increase.

Throughout AIT at Fort Riley, we were taught that each gunner kept the log book for his particular gun up to date, everyday. Maintenance, number of rounds through the tube, at what charge, ammo count, fuse count. All of this information was used to calculate how long the tube would last under combat conditions.

Before I left the unit, I was updating the log books for all six howitzers in our battery.

Ammo count was important because we had to know what our supply was at all times.

One time, around Thanksgiving 1967, we provided fire support for over 24 hours for an infantry unit out in the jungle that was under attack. The battle was only a few miles from where our barges were and we could hear all the racket. Gunships (Air Force) were flying low and we could see the mini-guns in action. We were re-supplied by big Navy helicopters throughout the operation. They looked like flying cranes. They would drop the bundles of ammo in the rice paddies, as close to the guns as possible and everyone who wasn't firing would break each bundle open and haul the rounds to the guns that were being re-supplied.

Each 105mm round weighed 50-pounds and a box included two rounds. Carrying a box was clumsy, so we broke the boxes open and carried two rounds at a time on our shoulders, sometimes four, through the muddy rice paddies and across shaky gang planks to the barge.

The mud we tracked onto the barge was quickly washed away with a bucket of river water.

I was sent back to Dong Tam where I received my orders to report to Bearcat to retrieve my duffel bag that had been stored and for transportation to Bien Hoa air base for my flight back to the world.

While at Bearcat, a friend and I went visiting other friends in another unit. The sun was going down as we approached from the east. I thought the silhouette of a soldier appeared familiar. It happened to be a fellow student from Chilocco and he had only been in country for a couple of weeks. We visited and that's the last time I would see him. He passed away at age 36 at a VA hospital.

As the Freedom Bird took off, I could see white puffs of smoke (white phosphorus marking rounds for the artillery) in the distance. Next thing I knew we were leaving Japan, and I slept all the way to San Francisco.

William Howell.jpeg