This story was submitted to r/MilitaryStories about six years ago. I see the submission rules have changed, so I thought I'd get this one up.
What I'm doing with my posted stories is updating them and putting them into a final form. If you're not into rereading old stuff, this is your alert - give it a bye. Otherwise, step back with me to Vietnam, early 1968. I was an artillery 2nd LT, all of twenty years old.
The good news is that I changed some over the next 18 months. Even I can see that boy was still just a kid. He got darker and deeper as he got closer to the War.
My First Secondary
You never forget your first, do you? Artillerymen long for it: that delayed explosion that was NOT one of ours. Makes everything worthwhile.
The Gift of the Magi
No, this is not a story about sex. Or maybe it is. I dunno. My reaction to secondaries is one of joy and satisfaction. Could be some sexual synapses firing there, but no wet spots. I think it’s above my paygrade to figure it out, plus I don’t care. I just know how I feel, and, brother, secondaries made me feel great. Talk to a psychiatrist if you want to know more.
I’m not alone. Secondary explosions are Christmas and New Year and 4th of July for artillery observers. I put out so many battery ones and twos into the jungle with no results that I got over being disappointed by a pack tossed away, mortar baseplates abandoned, weaving running-away trails into the deep bush.
I’d dutifully report the results back to the battery, where the Fire Direction Officer would dutifully write it down, and we’d all wonder if the damage we were doing was worth $125/round. Was routine, par for the course, even though I could hear the disappointment in the FDO’s voice. I’m sure he could hear it in mine.
Battery and Assault
Maybe the next fire mission... Every once in a while, I’d listen to my rounds impact, Bam Bam, bammity Bam! then BOOM! <pause> Bam! BOOM! POW! POW!, and kill me now, Lord - life is NEVER gonna get better’n this! I hit something explosive, ruined someone’s day.
The first priority of artillery is counter-battery - shut down the other guy’s tubes. I always thought there was a military reason for that, but now I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s just so much FUN to chase the enemy off his tubes, blow up his ammo, put him out of action, that there’s nothing else an artilleryman wants to do more.
They don’t teach you this stuff in OCS. I was unprepared. Right after I got to Vietnam, I was assigned to Landing Zone Stud, the kind of braggy-named firebase that was the HQ of the 1st Cavalry Division as it conducted Operation Pegasus to relieve the siege of the Marines at Khe Sanh.
This was maybe March or April of 1968, and I was a fresh-off-the-airplane, FNG (Fuckin' New Guy) 2nd Lieutenant assigned to Intelligence (S-2) of 1st Cav Division Artillery (DivArty). I was an air-observer - I adjusted artillery onto targets from a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft.
Helicopters were best - I got to sit in the right or left-hand front seat of a LOH, and I could see everything. The only problem with helicopters was that you kinda had to dodge Anti-Aircraft-Artillery (AAA) from the 12.7mm machine guns and 37mm anti-aircraft guns that lined the approaches to Khe Sanh.
That wasn’t a problem for fixed-wing aircraft. Our people were flying O1 Birddogs, which looked like an Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC) airplane. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) AAA positions never figured out the difference, but they knew that if you fired on a FAC, he had a couple or three F4 Phantoms just above the cloud cover who would come kick ass and take names. Just as a general rule, the NVA did not fire on small fixed-wing aircraft. Which was good for us, even though we had no idea where to get a Phantom.
That was the upside of Birddogs. The downside was the back seat of an O1. You can’t see shit. I had to sit on my parachute just to see out. Plus the pilots were senior officers - 1st Lieutenants and Captains, instead of the Warrant Officers who piloted observation helicopters - so I was more an assistant to the pilot than a free-agent. Most of those O1 pilots were pretty sure they could adjust artillery all by themselves. Some could. Some... not so much.
One of the O1 pilots who had a pretty good grasp of how to adjust artillery was making a rep for himself. He was tearing up the countryside, blowing up whole convoys of NVA trucks, taking out AAA positions, even claiming some tanks destroyed (PT76s). He was a Captain, kind of old-school, so let’s call him Captain America.
DivArty was getting suspicious that Captain America was padding his résumé. He was certainly outshining all the other air observers. So they decided to assign me to his back seat, get a second set of eyes on all this mayhem Cap was dispensing.
I didn’t know what was going on. A few DivArty people told me about Cap, but I didn’t think anything of it. Just seemed like another assignment to me. I think Cap figured out that whatever the plot against him was, I wasn’t consciously a part of it. He was gruff, but friendly. Found me a nice soft parachute to sit on.
I think I only flew with him for two missions. The first mission, we didn’t find much of anything, just shot up some AAA sites that had been reported by the C130s running supplies down the valley to Khe Sanh. We had some loiter time in the air, and Captain America told me his secret.
He was color-blind. He cheated on the color-blindness test, because he wanted to be a pilot. And there was something else: he could see stuff that color-normal people like me couldn’t see. Mostly, he told me, he could see cut vegetation. It didn’t have to dry out, could be freshly cut. Didn’t matter. Evidently, plant matter that has been cut off from its roots changes color in some way.
Which makes a difference. The NVA supply trains were trucking (and biking and walking) down jungle trails into Laos then over to the Khe Sanh area. When they stopped, they cut banana and palm leaves to cover their vehicles. And Cap could see that. So he said.
Eye in the Sky
Wut? Okay, he was a captain and I was an FNG 2nd Lieutenant. I just let it go. Fine. You can see stuff the rest of us can’t see. Yes sir. Got it. I have no opinion about that.
Until later. Our second mission together, we were out west of Lang Vei, and Cap reported he could see trucks in a treeline by an elephant-grass field. I was peering out the window - couldn’t see squat, but I could see the field. North side, said Captain America. He also asked, “Seriously? You can’t see that?” No, I don’t see anything except jungle. He seemed disappointed.
But y’know, I was game. I called up a 105mm battery out of Khe Sanh, and we went to work. I walked rounds to the edge of the elephant grass, called for a battery two, mix quick and delay, add 50, Fire for Effect. Cap wanted more than a battery two, and I told him next volley, I’m gonna walk this battery through the treeline.
Keep On Truckin'
According to Captain America, I was left about 20 meters, needed to go farther right into the treeline. Fine. “Buckshot 34, right two-zero, repeat.” The battery echoed my command, gave me “Shot,” then “Splash,” and then... holy shit. Twelve rounds impacted in the thick jungle and whoooomp! Was like a movie explosion, one of those foo-gas special effects! Big orange fire cloud - maybe a gas tank! Huh. They told us the NVA were short on gas. Guess not.
I was screaming into my radio, “BUCKSHOT 34, REPEAT! SECONDARIES, SECONDARIES!! I THINK YOU HIT A GAS TANK!” The battery echoed my “Repeat!” I could hear cheering and yells in the background.
By the time the next volley arrived there were other explosions, HE and tracers flying up from the jungle - must’ve been an ammo load on that truck. Then another gas tank. My god, I was in heaven. The battery was playing my BDA’s (battle damage assessment) over the battery intercom so the gun bunnies could hear. They were whooping and hollerin', too, according to the battery FDO.
I worked that treeline over some more, but that was about it. I don’t imagine we inconvenienced the NVA that much, but somebody down there lost his trucks. And maybe more.
Truth and Consequences
Was an interesting experience. Captain America took full credit. Fair enough. Either he had eyes to see, or he just got incredibly lucky. Either way, I’m good. Got an invite back to the battery for a beer, but never went. Looked dangerous where they were. Whatever Army 105mm battery was in or around Khe Sanh in March or April 1968, they still owe me a beer.
Not that I needed one. I was on a high, even after we landed. My affirmation of Captain America’s super powers was poorly received by the DivArty Powers-That-Be, but they didn’t hold it against me.
Or maybe they did. I got sent to adjust 175mm guns against AAA positions in the A Shau Valley way off south and west by Laos. 175's were all that could reach the valley, and they were slow, slow, slow. Spent a lot of time staring at Laos.
Remembrance of Things Past
Not sure why I even wrote this story up, except I got all excited again just typing it. It’s worrisome, a little - I expect some people got hurt down in that treeline. Not nice to feel so nice about it, I suppose. But everyone was fair game, and God knows, I had some scary shit dumped in my vicinity while I was in-country. Comes with the territory. We all knew that. The NVA too, I reckon.
Even today, I don’t know what to think of Captain America’s super-vision. But I’m still fond of him. He’s like the older brother who took virgin-me to the local whorehouse. I’m grateful. That was fun. And I still remember. Thanks Cap.
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