Excerpts From A War Memoir

Thank you for your service.” A half century after Vietnam retired firefighter Gary Rafferty manages to smile but his thoughts are elsewhere. His service? Clearly not his descent into a tropic hell. Most civilians prefer not to know about that. Why else would they trot out the worn cliche? But for a moment let Gary step down from the pedestal of that shallow praise, let him step back in time and speak of the last major joint campaign with ARVN and U.S. troops. What follows are excerpts from “Nothing Left To Drag Home: The Siege at Lao Bao During Operation Dewey Canyon II–Lam Son 719, as Told by an Artilleryman Who Survived It,” forthcoming from Maddog/Redleg Press.

How capable are the ARVN? Let me illustrate with an event that occurred before I came to A Battery, when I was a driver for the S-2 officer in the rear. At battalion level it’s not exactly James Bond stuff. Instead, we liaison with an observation team—a lieutenant and six men—at Firebase Alpha 2. They occupy an old three story cement tower built by the French on the north side of the base, right along the edge of the DMZ.

On the third story of the tower, under a reinforced roof is an Integrated Observation Device, which sits on a heavy tripod. The IOD consists of three gadgets: a laser range finder about the size of a breadbox. A set of powerful ship’s binoculars, and an infrared scope. There’s an infrared searchlight up on the roof. Together they provide night vision capability. Since the IOD is high tech—it’s one of the first laser range finders in the world—there are a couple of thermite grenades on top in to destroy it rather than have it fall into enemy hands. With your naked eye you can see the show village across the river in North Vietnam: several thatched huts around a flagpole touting an immense North Vietnamese flag. With the IOD you get a sweeping view of the DMZ.

One day while we’re at the tower a man on the IOD spots three people walking through the Demilitarized Zone. With their pith helmets, packs, and rifles slung over their shoulders, they’re definitely NVA, the three dopes just bopping along. They’re a long way off and I doubt they think we can see them. In fact we can tell that one of them is female. We take a magnetic bearing and get an exact range. All we have to do is radio one of our batteries at another firebase and we’ll likely get a first round hit. Which is what I suggest to the lieutenant we do. But he says no.

“We have new orders from headquarters to work with the ARVN artillery. I’ll call down to them and give them this fire mission.”

I’m not part of the observation team, I haven’t been in-country long, but nothing I’ve seen ARVN do has impressed me. Noticing my skeptical look, the lieutenant says, “Oh, don’t worry. These guys are from the ARVN 1st Division. They’re a crack outfit. They’re taking over when we leave. They can use the practice.”

Now, I think he’s crazy but I’m not in charge, so I stand back and get ready to watch the show. The lieutenant gets on the crank phone. He talks to someone in the ARVN Fire Direction Control.

“Fire mission! Enemy troops in the open!”

He reads from our grid position, gives the azimuth and distance to target. This is a polar plot, which means finding an unknown position from a known point by giving a direction and a distance along a straight line. Very simple. Hard to fuck up. I look over the edge of the shoulder high parapet and watch the ARVN gun crews, who are wearing shorts and flop-flops, man two 105mm howitzers just below us. Both crews lift and orient the guns. From my vantage point I can see that each gun is pointing in a different direction and neither is pointed at the three NVA! Okay, they’ll realize they’re mistake and fix it, right? Nope. The gunners open the breeches, the loaders slam home the rounds, close the breeches, attach the lanyards.

“Ah, lieutenant,” I say. “You’d better come check this out.”

He dashes over, sees the problem, yells into the phone, “Have them check their azimuth of lay! Have them check…” To late. The first round goes over the river into North Vietnam. A major fuck up. There’s a ceasefire in place and we’re only allowed to fire into South Vietnam, or halfway across the river. Somebody, probably the lieutenant, will get a shitload of grief and a ton of paperwork because of this.

The second round lands in South Vietnam but misses the three NVA by a half mile, going well over their heads and south of them. They look up and quickly realize they’ve been seen and shot at. As we watch through the IOD, off come the packs and helmets and they bolt for the river. They know once they’re half way across we can’t shoot at them. By the time the lieutenant gets this ARVN shit show straightened out the NVA are long gone.

“One day several of us lined up for supper early. There’s a small clump of green bamboo near the mess truck, maybe eight feet tall and a couple feet in diameter. Next to it, the garbage pit, where the dirty paper plates and cups are thrown. We’re standing there ragging on the spoons to hurry up. They tell us to show some respect. Don’t we know the stoves are fueled with regular gasoline? Don’t we realize how dangerous that is for them? The spoons are even worse than usual about this now that their mess truck was destroyed by a direct hit. Suddenly, the familiar dull boom. Everybody shuts up. A mid-length—SSSCCCRRREEE…KA-Boom! hits nearby.

The cooks vanish. I swear they’re gone before their ladles hit the ground. Me and another guy stand there a second, look at each other. Oh, shit! We’re too far from our holes and the incoming is too close to run to them. There’s only one thing to do. We crouch by the bamboo. KA-Boom! The next round is even closer, and the top two feet of bamboo turns to green confetti, which flutters down on us as we dive into the garbage pit and burrow into the debris, digging with our hands, trying to get even lower down.

The barrage lasts for maybe ten minutes but it sure seems a lot longer. When it stops, and we finally standup, shaking off rancid paper cups, plates and white plastic forks, we try to wipe the greasy stains from our fatigues—the only clothes we have. Everyone laughs at us, even the reappeared spoons, but they’re mostly busy inspecting their new mess truck, now perforated by a shitload of shrap.

“You know,” my friend says, “we didn’t really have to get down in there.”

As I wipe the grease off my pants I point to the clump of bamboo, completely shorn off at ground level.

“Oh, yeah?”

14 March 1971. The volume of artillery fire on our area increases by the day. While A Battery is now pretty well dug in, other units, especially those traveling up and down Route 9, are often caught out in the open. In the early afternoon a group of engineers are bulldozing the brush on the small hill the 1/5 Mech Infantry had fought from during the night attack. All of a sudden the engineers take incoming. The sound is a weird mix of sharp explosion and the clang of metal on metal. When it’s safe I go to help, and what I find are scenes from hell.

Doc Felt works on a young soldier. The tails of battle dressings tangle around him like butchered intestines. Nearby, on a bulldozer, sits a man minus one arm and both legs. Someone’s hands—no, my hands—pitch the smoke grenade to mark the spot for the dust off. Through a squall of dust and smoke, hunched over like men in a hailstorm, we carry the wounded on litters to the chopper. Something gentle cuffs against my thigh. A leg, from knee to boot, dangling by a strand of flesh, taps to remind me of my wholeness. I go back and forth to the FDC track. Take cover between salvos. Get up and go as far as I can before having to flop down again. Sometime during my dashes to and from FDC, despite being careful, I flop down hard on a pair of sunglasses in my shirt pocket. They’re my prized possession, bought on R&R. As I look into one of the broken lenses, I see reflected in it the shattered face of a man I hardly recognize.

The one good thing about Nam is the sheer abundance of weapons, and because I’m a scrounge, whatever I “find” I keep. In my collection are a half-dozen baseball grenades, a white phosphorus grenade—at 27 oz., good luck throwing a Willie Pete past its bursting radius—a bunch of CS grenades, a LAW.

The Light Anti-tank Weapon is a single shot, disposable rocket launcher with a wicked back blast. Look to the rear before you fire it. Months ago, because a few of our guys were stupid, XXIV Corp HQ declared all LAWs unauthorized, to be turned in. I kept mine. Why not? My whole damn collection is unauthorized!

So here we are, at the Laos border, where the NVA have tanks and we haven’t got LAWs. Well, almost nobody. One afternoon Captain Mixon comes by.

“Rafferty, word has it you have a LAW.”

“Well, you know Cap. XXIV Corp ordered them turned in months ago.”

He smiles, notices I didn’t really answer the question.

“Well, if somebody hadn’t turned in their LAW, and it somehow it showed up at the bunker nearest the road to Laos, well, I’d much appreciate that.”

“On the way, Cap.”

Now, I don’t know what good a single LAW will be if NVA T-54 Russian tanks come rumbling down Route 9, but if they do, we at least have one, and it’s proudly unauthorized.

By now, things being what they are, I’m swapping duty with all the guys in my section so I can stay more or less on permanent perimeter guard duty at night.

This is not a kindness, mind you, though most of the guys are happy to swap. Pulling guard inside the Fire Direction Control track, it’s at least 80 degrees at night. Add to this the heat from a couple of men, a pair of gas fueled Coleman lanterns, the doors and hatches shut to suppress light, it’s a fucking sauna. But what I object to most is the awful illusion of safety. With its radio antennae sticking up for all to see, the FDC track is a magnet for sappers. I hate it, but some guys would rather pull guard in the track than to stay awake all night outside. Not me, brother. I know how dog-tired I am, but I’m too terrified to sleep. I don’t trust anyone else to keep awake.

I’m in my perimeter hole all night, get my z’s in the morning, between guard relief and the start of incoming. Two to three hours if I’m lucky. Let the others think I’m crazy. I don’t care. I’m an old timer now. Getting short. When there’s no moon and it’s pitch black, I listen for danger. That’s what I do.

To be honest, during long nights on the perimeter, especially after 2 or 3 A.M., I feel wide awake one moment, find myself nodding off the next. Once, twice, three times, my head jerks back, or double drops forward—thunk–thunk—I startle awake. It’s a real struggle to stay alert. To keep my eyes from slowly closing shut I shift position. Wet my face with canteen water. Stretch my arms and legs. Anything to not drift into sleep.

But a few minutes, or is it hours later, it happens again. And each time, I’m twice as startled when my head jolts back, knowing full well that to fall asleep is to risk the lives of A Battery. I pass the night in and out of this trance state, too proud and stubborn to ask anyone else for relief. In any case, even if I asked, the others—as tired as me—are in no position to help.

Way back at Firebase Ross I trusted two guys to stay awake while I slept (on guard duty two men out of three must be awake). It cost me a stripe and two months at half pay when those two shit heads conked out. Even though the duty roster said I was supposed to be asleep First Sergeant Tyre, who I will tell you about later, was more than willing to punish us equally. That was the last time I trusted anyone to stay awake.

By the time my tour ended, my year of white-tailed rockets and whistling mortars, booming salvos from enemy cannons, my frenzied time of slaughtered men and littered equipment, I had nothing left to drag home but myself. Don’t thank me for that. Thank me for learning to oppose the war. For calling attention to our empire of cruelty. For that I would thank you much.

Top photo: Gary Rafferty on a fire base near the Laos border. Gary is on the right. The fellow on the left, giving the peace sign, was a member of  C Battery, 2nd/94th Field Artillery. His name has been lost in the passage of time.