01 Feb Tales from The Iron Triangle: The Forward Observer
Operation Junction City, March, 1967
Republic of South Vietnam
To say that Private First Class Sam “Salty” Menendez was a cocky little sack of shit would have been a complete understatement. The little Filipino/American soldier was the best FO (forward observer) in the entire 1st Infantry Division’s artillery battalion and he wasn’t afraid to flaunt that fact to anyone and everyone who cared to listen, and even to those who did not.
“You may have the power of eighteen 105mm howitzers at your command,” he would often brag in the mess hall back at the 1st Infantry Division’s base camp at Di᷈ An (dee-Ahn). “But they’re useless without a good FO out there with the grunts. You artillery boys sitting safe and sound back in the rear are literally useless unless an FO is out in the bush telling you where to point your gun tubes!”
Salty had a big mouth, even though Salty Menendez wasn’t a particularly big kid. In fact, he was a little on the scrawny side. But he was always a bundle of energy and could hump twice his weight in gear through the bush with the best of them. At his AIT (Advanced Individual Training) school at Fort Sill where he learned to be a forward observer, it was clear that Salty had certain skills and talents which set him apart from the rest of his classmates. So although Salty looked like the classic example of a bookworm nerd, which included the big, black rimmed Army issue glasses he wore, his overbearing self confidence and his ability to walk the walk and talk the talk along with his physically bigger and more muscular comrades endeared him to his classmates to the point of being annoying.
As a forward observer (or FO), it was Salty’s job to go out with the regular infantry Joes and seek out the enemy. Sometimes in Vietnam, you found the enemy, but eleven times out of ten, the enemy found you first. In either case, when it occurred, you needed artillery and you needed it accurate and fast. It was the job of the forward observer to relay that critical information- the who, what, where, when, why, and how much high explosives to use- back to the rear so that the artillery boys can start sending 105mm high explosive rounds in your direction.
On the surface, an FO’s job was pretty simple. First, you find the bad guys, our just wait for them to eventually find you. Then you call back to the artillery boys waiting faithfully next to their howitzers to blow shit up. The FO calls in one adjusting round and watches where it lands in relation to the enemy. The FO then calls in another adjusting round, hoping to make it land on the opposite side of where the first round landed. If the FO is good, the enemy position would be located somewhere between where the first two rounds landed. After that, the FO calls in adjustments, slowly “walking” the high explosive rounds closer and closer towards the enemy position until the rounds land on target. Once the adjusting rounds impact directly on top of the enemy positions, the FO calls “fire for effect” at which time multiple high explosive rounds are dropped on the enemy’s head until they are pulverized into bloody ex-enemies.
Naturally, the enemy isn’t just going to sit there and let those nasty round-eyed Americans liberate them to death. They will be constantly moving to find cover and, hopefully, bring their own fire on the pesky American FO. So the FO will be constantly adjusting rounds until the artillery boys get on target. To do this accurately and swiftly, the FO needed to be spot on in reading a map and pinpointing grid coordinates. The FO needed to be good at judging distance, estimating range, and accurately reading compass directions. Also, being good at trigonometry was a definite plus.
And that little shit Salty Menendez had all of these things in spades, along with a cocky ego that was far too big for an entire airborne division. During training back at Fort Sill, Private Menendez usually only needed to call one or two adjustment rounds on a stationary target before calling “fire for effect.” In the more difficult mission of hitting a moving target, Salty usually needed to expend just four adjusting rounds before calling a “fire for effect.” Then in December, 1966, Private Sam “Salty” Menendez graduated at the top of his Forward Observer class at Fort Sill and was promoted to Private First Class. Shortly after the Christmas holiday, Salty and most of his classmates found themselves on a transport plane headed towards the war in Vietnam.
Salty and three of his FO classmates from Fort Sill, Heiden, Frenchie, and McDermott found themselves at the massive army base camp at Di᷈ An (dee-Ahn) and assigned to the famous US Army First Infantry Division. The division was known as the Big Red One due to the big, stylized number one, colored red, emblazoned on the unit patch which was shaped like a shield. The four newbie FO’s had exactly three weeks to acclimatize to the humid, sticky jungle weather and the smell of mold and stale air. The Big Red One was busy getting ready to leave Di᷈ An to participate in Operation Junction City, the military’s largest operation in Vietnam to date, aimed at destroying the VC (Viet Cong) in a large area of South Vietnam in what was known as the Iron Triangle.
The four FO’s had been attached to the forward observer company of the division’s artillery battalion. The artillery battalion was short of qualified FO’s as novice forward observers had a nasty habit of returning from extended field operations as the creamy filling of a green, rubber, body bag. Heiden, Frenchie, and McDermott were naturally apprehensive, having to prepare to go out and face an enemy which had fought the mighty US military to a stand still for so many years. They’d only had two or three occasions to practice calling for artillery fire around the base camp before it was time to step off and invade the enemy held territory, nicknamed Indian Country by the infantry soldiers who had ventured into the Iron Triangle and lived to tell about it. For his part, Salty seemed genuinely looking forward to going into the Iron Triangle. “This is the Big Red One, guys,” he said to his buddies as they were cleaning their M16s in their squad tent and making final preparations to move out of the base. “These guys know what they are doing. And besides, you get me out there and I’ll cut a few years off this war.”
“This isn’t Fort Sill, Salty,” said Frenchie, Salty’s best friend since basic training. “Things are different when they’re shooting back at you.”
“Meh,” said Salty. “That’s what the infantry Joes are for! They do all the return firing until we call in the artillery and put steel on target.”
“Geez, Salty,” said Heiden, taking a break from packing to shovel a spoon full of C-Ration wieners and beans into his mouth. “If they could turn your ego into a bomb, this war would be over tomorrow.”
“Can’t help being the best, baby,” replied Salty, clicking the bolt and upper receiver of his M16 back and forth, ensuring that it was cleaned and oiled and would work properly. “The VC are nothing but little starving yellow bastards. Little, rice eating, cowards and bullies. I’m going to enjoy force feeding the Viet Cong a few hundred rounds of high explosives.”
McDermott rolled his eyes, “Man, Salty! You’re Asian! You’re Filipino, right?”
“Semantics!” Salty waved his hand dismissively. “Besides, I hate rice.”
The next morning, eight olive drab US Army UH1 Huey utility helicopters transported the company out of Di᷈ An on the forty-five minute trip east to the battalion’s forward operating base just west of the Iron Triangle. The mess hall had served a particularly hearty breakfast meal which Heiden managed to barf out of the Huey’s open side door, much to the consternation of the helicopter’s door gunner who now had ham and egg vomit all over his jungle boots.
The formation circled over one of the 1st Infantry Division’s forward operating bases that was located in the middle of a swallow valley of tall saw grass and reeds with densely tree covered foothills and mountains bracketing the base on the north, south and west while a stream ran along the eastern perimeter. Salty leaned over and looked down at the base as the helicopters made their final approach to the LZ (landing zone). He could see that the base was still under construction, as shirtless soldiers were toiling away stringing up razor wire around the perimeter, filling sandbags for bunkers and tents, and digging out machine gun and fighting positions. Towards the center of the base, Salty saw two pits dug out of the red, clay earth, each holding two 81mm mortars. About two hundred meters east of the mortars, a larger firing position was dug out which held a battery of four of the Army’s new M102 105mm howitzers. It was barely after nine o’clock in the morning, and although this was the temperate dry season in Vietnam, it was already showing signs of being a muggy and humid day.
The helicopters had no sooner touched down on the flat LZ that a big senior NCO appeared at the open cargo door, yelling and screaming at the nine young GIs to get their gear and their asses out on the chopper now!
“Gezus H. Christ, you sacks of shit,” yelled the shaven headed senior NCO wearing a pair of sunglasses, a cigar clenched between his teeth. “This isn’t a fucking picnic, ladies! Mister Victor isn’t waiting here to serve you finger sandwiches and lemonade! This is fucking Indian Country, and if you don’t want to be a notch in some VC sniper’s rifle, you will un-ass this chopper now! What the hell kind of slow ass losers are they contaminating my beloved United States Army with these days?”
The senior NCO, who stood at least six feet, three inches, glared at the nine FNGs (fucking new guys) who had been packed in the Huey helicopter, barely hiding his disgust as the brand new GIs with their clean, unfaded olive uniforms seemed to be taking their own sweet time getting out, even though they were clumsily stumbling and bumbling to jump out as quickly as possible. Even Salty scrambled to grab his pack and his rifle as he hurried to jump out of the helicopter’s sliding door, not wanting to piss off the angry NCO more than he already was.
“Get off of my damned LZ and get into that bunker over there before the VC begins lobbing rounds at us,” he yelled at the new arrivals. Then, turning, he yelled over his shoulder to four soldiers waiting at the edge of the LZ. “What the hell are you idiots waiting for? Grab those bags of dunnage and trash and throw it in the back of the chopper! You’re in the middle of fucking Vietnam! You’re not at home where mommy is going to make your bed for you and throw out your damn trash!”
Salty peered out of the wooden frame which formed the entrance into the sandbag and aluminum roofed bunker, noting that the big sergeant was still yelling at the four soldiers on garbage detail even after they had tossed the trash into the helicopter and the helicopter was lifting off.
“Get your asses back to your work details,” he continued yelling at the unfortunate garbage detail. “I want that new machine gun bunker dug out by noon and I want 100 meters of ground cleared from in front of first and second squads fighting positions! Now get the hell out of my face!”
From behind Salty, Private Heiden gulped as they all watched the big bald headed sergeant stomp towards the bunker, massive suntanned muscles bulging out from rolled up uniform sleeves, his M16 looking like a match stick in his meaty hands. He had the rank of Sergeant First Class, E7, and wore two 1st Infantry Division patches, one sewn on each sleeve, meaning that he had survived more than one combat tour in Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division..
“That guy makes our drill sergeants look like a bunch of lady parts,” whispered McDermott. “I bet John Wayne shines his boots.”
“I wonder if he’s going to be our platoon sergeant,” said one of the other green new GIs.
“I hope not,” thought Salty as the big sergeant pushed through the entrance and stalked into the bunker.
Without stopping for introductions, the big sergeant yelled, “Which ones of you numb-nuts are Eleven-Bravos?” he scanned the faces of the new soldiers who were looking dumbly up at him. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, I got a war to fight and I don’t have time to wait on…”
“I’m Eleven-Bravo,” said a skinny black kid standing in the back of the bunker and raising his hand.
“Yeah, so are we,” said a white kid, nodding to a shorter Hispanic kid standing next to him. “We’re Eleven-Bravo. We graduated infantry school from Fort Benning together.”
“Geezus, they graduate you younger and younger, don’t they,” said the sergeant, shifting the cigar in his mouth. “Did any of you get laid before you left the States? No matter,” he grunted. “You killers are getting ready to head into the Valley of Death where, if you ain’t careful, you will be well and truly fucked!”
“I’m Sergeant First Class Pretty because,” he removed the cigar from his mouth and held out his arms, “well, just look at me! I’ll be your platoon sergeant and I will be the prettiest thing you will ever see in Vietnam, so get used to it! Welcome to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment. Boys, you are in the same unit that took the Normandy Beaches from the damned Nazis in World War Two and we’re going to take this damned Iron Triangle from the damned Commies. Just do as you’re told, don’t do anything stupid, and follow my lead and you’ll walk out of the Triangle in one piece! Trust me boys, this ain’t Sergeant Pretty’s first rodeo!”
He put the cigar back in his mouth, smiling in a cocky manner which surprisingly calmed the new soldiers. “Who all here is a mortar chucker? Who here is Eleven-Charlie?”
This time two soldiers quickly raised their hands. “We’re Eleven-Charlie mortar men, sergeant,” said a muscular young black soldier.
Sergeant Pretty smiled. “Good! Sergeant Brickhouse is going to love seeing you guys! The mortar section is down three guys. Seems they got the running trots from drinking the water from that stream you saw to the east of here. That’s explosive diarrhea, ladies, and it will put you down faster than an AK47 round. Remember, boys, don’t drink no water around here until you sanitize it first! They got shit in the water that’ll make your pecker fall off if you ain’t careful!”
Sergeant Pretty looked at the last four new comers to the group, and Salty, Heiden, Frenchie, and McDermott stared at the sergeant in apprehension.
“So,” said Sergeant Pretty. “Who the hell are you little shits and what good are you to my beloved fire base?”
“We’re Thirteen-Fox,” said Salty. “Artillery Forward observers.”
“Huh, I see,” said Sergeant Pretty dubiously, inhaling his cigar and blowing a puff of smoke which seemed to engulf the bunker. “You Red Legs any good?” interrogated Sergeant Pretty, calling the FO’s by their traditional Army Nickname of Red Leg.
“We…umm…” said Salty. “We like to think we are.”
Just then, two mortar rounds exploded in the middle of the helicopter landing zone, throwing black smoke and red clay into the air. Fortunately, the helicopters had long since departed, although there was still a great deal of consternation and yelling amongst the soldiers who were at the LZ perimeter who were busy digging fighting positions and emplacing razor wire.
“I hope you’re better than that VC forward observer,” said Sergeant Pretty, pointing a thumb out into the jungle. “If he were any good, you’d all be dead by now. But, I’m sure he’s just throwing out the challenge to you boys.”
“Anyway, for your sakes, I hope you’re better than the last new guy FO we lost,” said the sergeant, lighting his cigar again.
“What…what happened to him, Sergeant?” gulped Frenchie.
“His name was Private I-Forget-His-Name, an FNG just like you guys. He’d been out on patrol in the bush a few times with some other platoons, but nothing happened. Then one day, he was attached to my platoon during one of our first patrols into the Iron Triangle and we got into a scrap with Mister Victor. They opened up on us from a tree line two hundred meters away with small arms and machine gun fire. Lieutenant Hastings pulled us back and we had a Mexican stand-off with the VC. Usually, the lieutenant would be the one calling in indirect fire, but since we had an FO, the lieutenant showed Private I-Forget-His-Name where he wanted the rounds placed. The FO called in one adjustment 81mm round and it landed almost directly on top of his head. There wasn’t enough left of my lieutenant or that dumb son of a bitch FO to put in a damned sandwich bag.”
Sergeant Pretty took out his cigar and pointed it threateningly at the four forward observers. “I don’t care how shit hot you were in training. I don’t care if you can drop a 155mm round into a damn bucket at twenty miles! That was just training. This is the real world with real consequences! If you get so screwed in the head by rifle fire impacting all around you that your dumb ass accidently calls artillery on your own head, you are no good to me. If any of you Red Legs are attached to one of my patrols, you had better not fuck up! I will kill you myself! Is that clear, Red Legs?”
“Yes, sergeant,” yelped all four of the Forward Observers in unison.
“Good,” smiled Sergeant Pretty. “Now that we got that straight, get the hell out of my bunker! The artillery command post is that big tent that you saw to the north of the artillery battery as you were flying in. Infantry and mortars! You follow me. You FO’s know where your command post is located. Now git’! Git’ the hell out of my bunker!”
Upon arriving at the artillery command post, the four new forward observers met the artillery unit’s first sergeant who, in turn, introduced them to their new FO platoon sergeant. The FO platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Blanchard, was nothing like big Sergeant First Class Pretty. He was thinner, with bushy hair, and was reserved to the point of being introverted. The FO platoon sergeant showed them the tent where they could stow their gear then showed them where the mess tent was where they could grab chow. He explained that the FO section was stretched pretty thin and that the other FO’s were out on missions. Staff Sergeant Blanchard was pleasant enough, but he was nowhere near as charismatic or inspired as much confidence as Sergeant Pretty, and strangely, Salty and the rest of the new FOs were disappointed.
The four found empty cots in the tent. There were twelve cots in total arranged in two rows inside the tent and the four sat in silence, trying to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of their new home for the next few weeks. The window flaps of the tent were rolled up, allowing the humid air to circulate the musty air around. A pile of the red clay sand sat next to the tent along with two pallets of sand bags and two shovels. The previous FO’s had already begun lining the tent with a wall of sandbags but the project was far from completion. Sergeant Blanchard instructed them to spend the rest of the day filling sand bags and lining their tent after they had secured their gear, three soldiers filling sandbags while one soldier stood guard, just in case the VC decided to take pot shots at them.
Soon, all four of them had removed their sweat soaked t-shirts and uniform tops, their skin itching with the grit of the dirt and clay as they labored away filling sand bags. Occasionally a Huey helicopter or the larger Chinook helicopter would land at the LZ, unloading replacements or supplies and equipment and the rotor downdraft would provide a brief and pleasant feeling breeze. On one occasion, a helicopter with a red cross on the side landed, and six medics emerged from the medical tent carrying three stretchers between them. There were three green rubber body bags on them.
“Aww, shit,” said McDermott, throwing a filled sand bag down next to their tent. “Is that what I think it is?”
They stopped their labor, watching silently as the three dead American soldiers were placed into the med-evac helicopter for their final trip home.
All of a sudden, a voice yelled “FIRE MISSION” coming from the artillery battery which was positioned 100 meters to the west of where the FO living tent was located. Artillery Red Leg soldiers ran from their bunkers to man the guns, turning cranks to elevate and rotate the gun tubes to the proper elevation and azimuth. Four other Red Legs stood by, three of them the new guys who had arrived with the FO’s earlier, a 34 pound high explosive round cradled in their arms. Somewhere out there in the jungle, an American forward observer was calling for artillery against the enemy. Once the howitzer gun tubes were pointed in the right direction, the loaders rammed high explosive rounds into the breech which slammed shut with a loud, metallic, THUNK!
“FIRE!” came the order from the gun chiefs and the entire base rocked with the sound of outgoing artillery fire. “FIRE!” “FIRE!” “FIRE!” The order was given several times and each time, a high explosive round boomed out of the tubes and flew out over the jungle. Seconds later, the crump-crump-crump sound of explosive rounds crashed in the distance. It was frighteningly close, no more than two miles.
“Oh,man,” said Frenchie. “That’s close! Are the VC that close?”
“Damn it!” yelled Salty, tossing his entrenching tool into the pile of dirt. “What the hell are we doing here? We need to be out there! I need to be out there! We ain’t killing nobody just sitting here filling damn sandbags!”
Two more fire missions were called before a dinner chow of overcooked spaghetti noodles and watery pasta sauce were served, complete with two soggy dinner rolls and copious amounts of hot sauce. None of the other FO’s returned that night, as they would be out overnight with the platoons they were attached to. The new FO’s spent their first night in the field rotating on two hour guard shifts out on the perimeter in a bunker which housed an M60 machine gun that stared out into the pitch black jungle 300 meters away. Occasionally, one of the mortars would send up a flare round and for a few minutes, the entire base and jungle tree line would be bathed in an eerie reddish/pink glow.
The night passed uneventfully and the four stumbled into their tent after a breakfast meal of toast, powdered eggs, fatty sausage, watered down orange juice and bananas. While they were at chow, one of the veteran FO’s who had been out the day before returned along with the infantry platoon he was supporting. He was a black soldier whose sweat soaked and muddy uniform was sun faded two shades from what its original olive drab color used to be and whose helmet camouflage cover was frayed and ripped. Dried mud and dirt covered his M16 and he smelled of jungle and sweat. The young black soldier looked up with barely disguised resentment at the new FOs as they entered the tent.
“Oh, hey!” said Frenchie, always the most cordial of the four. “You must be one of the team! I’m…
“Save it!” snapped the exhausted black soldier, and Frenchie jumped back. “You can tell me your damn names in a couple weeks, if you last that long. We’ve been going through you FNG’s like diarrhea and it’s tiring just trying to keep up with your names.”
“I’m sorry, man,” said Frenchie. “I didn’t…”
The black soldier just waved his hands dismissively. He stood up from his cot, grabbed his rifle and put his helmet back on. “Don’t worry about it, man. We’re cool.” Then, in a less pissed off tone, he said, “What are they serving for breakfast? Wait. Let me guess. Toast, powdered eggs, fatty sausage, and watered down orange juice.”
“And bananas,” piped in Heiden.
The black soldier rolled his eyes. “And bananas.”
As he made to leave the tent to go grab some breakfast, the black soldier stopped in front of McDermott, who was also black. “Were you from, new blood?”
“Brooklyn,” answered McDermott.
“North End near Flatbush,” answered McDermott. “You?”
“Brooklyn, South End at Belt Parkway,” said the black soldier. He exhaled. “My name’s Johnson. You’ll meet the others later on. Look, cats. You need to learn as much as you can while you’re out here . I’m already sure you met Sergeant Blanchard. He’s thirty days and a wake up short. He got one month left in Vietnam, so all he’s thinking about is getting his ass out of the bush and back to his home in Redneck, USA. Mind you, he did his time out in the bush, but he ain’t looking to teach you new guys anything.”
“Look, cats,” continued Johnson. “We started out five months ago with sixteen FO’s. Of the original sixteen of us, only me and Cooper are left. The other two FO’s, Massy and Dickerson, are the ones who are left of the replacements. We’ll teach you what we can, but you need to absorb it quick, like a sponge.”
“Thanks, brother, “said McDermott, holding out is hand. “I’m Mc…”
“I know who you are, brother,” said Johnson. “Your name is on your damn uniform. I’m just not going to learn your names until you prove your newbie asses aren’t going to get blown away. We’ll talk later, cats.” Johnson pushed back the tent flap and trudged towards the mess tent.
“Yeah, and I hope your ass makes a detour to the showers before you get back,” said Salty. Suddenly, Salty clapped his hands and smiled. “Hey! You know what that means? With all four of the current FO’s coming back from missions, that means they are going to need a little recovery time! That means we’ll be the next ones to be called out! I cannot wait to unload some high explosive on some VC ass!”
McDermott shook his head, slumping back down on his cot. “You are hopeless, you know that, Salty? Completely hopeless!”
Salty turned out to be correct in his assessment, as both Frenchie and McDermott were called to see Sergeant Blanchard and the artillery commander, Captain Greenbaum, at the TOC (tock- Tactical Operations Center). The next mission was going to be a classic hammer and anvil attack against the VC in the Iron Triangle. A heavily reinforced mechanized unit consisting of M113 tracked armored vehicles called APC’s (Armored Personnel Carriers), each mounting one M2 heavy machine gun and two M60 general purpose machine guns would be supporting the mission. This force would act as the anvil, stationing themselves in the shallow valley across from where the base camp is located seven miles into the Iron Triangle.
A second force acting as the hammer consisted of two infantry companies using helicopters to airlift deeper into the Iron Triangle. Once they land, the infantry would begin pushing towards the armored force of APCs, driving the VC in front of them. Frenchie would go with the anvil section which would be riding out to their engagement area atop the box-shaped armored personnel carriers. McDermott would be flying out with the hammer section which would be dropping some six kilometers away from the anvil section. Both of the FOs would be attached to the command section of their respective combat elements. The mission was to last no more than two or three days and Frenchie and McDermott were told to keep that in mind as they packed their gear, equipment and rifle.
Predictably, Salty was furious when he wasn’t chosen to go on the mission, and he raged around the tent, bitterly complaining to Heiden. He stood outside their tent and watched with barely contained envy, feeling betrayed as his best friend Frenchie threw his gear atop one of the ten armored vehicles which was festooned with machine guns and mechanized infantry soldiers as they roared out of the heavily guarded main gate of the base camp.