Tanks for the Memories

In 1997 Medic met Bruce Weigl at a William Joiner Center Writer’s Workshop held at U Mass Boston. Bruce is the author of several books of poetry and prose. He has returned to Vietnam many times, speaks the lingo and knows Bao Ninh. To help with a story he’s writing Bruce recently asked me what I’d do if I were on LP outside a firebase and saw two enemy tanks in the jungle. This led me to ask other VN vets that same question. Below are the current replies:

Delta 1-7 First Cavalry Division
Vietnam/Cambodia ’70

I have to tell you, I read the tank question and twice laughed out loud. I don’t know why, I just laughed. Then I thought about it. First thoughts were of accounts of Lam Son 719 and the Eastertide Offensive, both pitched battles toward the end. Then I drew a blank. Then I realized in VN I was at my best when not thinking; given time to think I had fear, and avoided risk. It was not in my nature–the hero thing. On LP, seeing two Soviet or Chinese tanks rolling in the darkness, I would be scared shitless. I would hide, try to sneak away, warn the base.”

Bruce Weigl
2/7 First Cavalry Division
Vietnam ’67-68

“Well, that was me, outside LZ Stud. The guy I was with wanted to shoot them up. Ha. Two fucking chi-com tanks. I got on the horn but first sergeant said there were no tanks there. I beg your pardon sergeant., I said, but I’m fucking looking at them. He told me to “get my shit together and get off the horn.” We did what you said. We laid low until they passed and crawled out of there to make our way back to Stud where we came close to getting lit up by a guy on guard duty we didn’t know was there. I think the LT or even the Major, I don’t remember said: “You should have taken them out.” Yeah, right. With an M-16 or a frag, I suppose. It’s probably not wise to take on a fucking tank with anything less than a LAW. In my story, the guy gets up and follows the tanks. I don’t know if I can get away with that or not.”

Read more about Bruce here.

Pete Sablock
Bravo  1/10 Cav 4th Infantry Division
Vietnam 1967-1968

I would have become one with the ground, and prayed that there were no foot soldiers following them. Then, in the morning, I would have gotten back to the firebase and raised holy hell with everyone who would listen. Why the fuck did they send us out so far that they couldn’t hear tanks clanking (noisier then hell and distinctive sound), not to mention the noise of 300hp, unmuffled diesel engines? In the jungle I could hear our tanks 500-700 meters away. The LP’s I went on were no more then 100 meters out.

Yeah, now that I think about it, I would have gone ballistic when I got back to base. Then again, being in an armored unit, telling tankers that a couple of little bullshit PT 76’s [Soviet Amphibious Light Tanks] were moving would have been like waving red meat in front of a Doberman.

Doug Anderson
1st Marines
Corpsman, Vietnam ’67-’68

If I saw two chicom tanks I’d shit. Fortunately I was far enough south there weren’t any, at least in 1967. I think yours [i.e. Medic’s] was the perfect response. And yeah, he can get away with following the tanks. Stranger things have happened. The marines at Hue called for help and the CO in the rear didn’t believe them. There were assholes everywhere.

Doug is an award winning poet and prose writer. Visit his website.

Curtis Price
FDC, B Battery 1st/21st Field Artillery
1st Air Cavalry, Vietnam ’70

If I was on LP and two tanks came rolling through the jungle, the first thought through my mind would be calmness. I’d be thinking it was the 11th Armored Cav coming into the firebase. But wait! The 11th Armored Cav only traveled by day!

Now I’m starting to worry that it might not be them. But it’s gotta be them, cause it’s the only tanks out here. Christ oh mighty! They are getting closer and closer and I don’t see any lights!

Okay, now I’m about to shit my fatigue pants. Damn, I thought I smelled something funny! Hang on. One of the other guys had beat me to it! Then it was my turn. I knew the pucker factor was so high you couldn’t put a needle up there, but the turds started coming and boy oh, did they ever! I’d filled my drawers full. It smelled like something had died!

Oh my God! What if the gooks smell it, what if they see us, what if they blow us all to hell! Pull yourself together Curtis! Damn it! You can’t stay alive on what if’s!

I gotta get the firebase on the horn and tell them there are tanks coming through the jungle! They ain’t gonna believe me. Besides, the gooks or Russians that are driving the tanks might hear me. You dumb ass! They can’t hear you over the engine or the clanking tracks. Go ahead and call!

Rich Raitano
Medic, 4/3 11th Light Infantry Brigade
Vietnam 1967-1968

That scenario never crossed my mind while I was in-country. The closet that thought might have come would have been as I sat alone and watched the fall of Saigon on TV. I wept deep and hard; the image of that tank crashing through the Presidential Palace gates. The death. What for?

But, that wasn’t your question. If, while out in the bush, or on guard duty, I saw two tanks rolling along, I’d be scared shitless also! And I’d be looking for leg-troops! Without a means to report, I’d di-di as quickly and quietly as possible, hoping they wouldn’t smell the shit in my pants!

John Neely
1st/ 327th, 101st Airborne Division
Vietnam ’68-’69

I’d like to think it would go something like this:

Night falls quickly in the tropics. We know the trail and keep quiet as we crest the ridge line and start down hill. A click from base we pick a spot overlooking a large area with a good field of view.

After a time we hear clanking. There’s at least one track out there. 2 should have told us if any friendlies were nearby. We call it in. “This is Lima Papa. We’ve got mechanical noise. Any APCs out here?”  “That’s a negative,” says 2. “Roger. Copy. Lima Papa out.”

As the clanking gets louder we start to think oh shit, tanks! and they might not be ours! Whoever it is, at three hundred meters, if they turn left and head for the base they’ll be 20 meters from us!

Do we have a LAW? Of course not!! We’re here to observe, not engage!

I radio in: “Sir, we have heavy vehicles to our front! Confirm they’re friendly or we request fire mission asap! With armor-piercing shells!”

“Wait one,” says 2. “Wait one.”

2 is a ROTC LT who spent four months in the bush before they pulled him back.

“Lima Papa,” he says, “I don’t know what you guys are smoking, but there are NO heavy vehicles in your vicinity, so I am NOT waking our Foxtrot Oscar on your say-so. Until you got something to report stay off my net!”

“Don’t mean nothin,” we say and hunker down for a sleepless night. For six hours the mystery vehicles seem to move in a straight line right past us. At one point moonlight floods the area and we see what looks an awful lot like two enemy tanks. Holy shit! We don’t move until daylight.

Back at base I meet with 2, pull out my topo map, draw a line on the plastic case.

“Sir, if you want to know what we saw, you’ll find their trail here. Tell one of our day patrols to check it out…sir.”

Gary Rafferty
A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 94th Artillery
Vietnam 70-71

I figured I’d offer my 2 cents as I was “lucky” enough to have been in the Lam Son 719 adventure. While I did not see any NVA tanks, they were roaming the area. In fact, during a ground attack one night we were fired upon by a high velocity gun, which we suspected was a tank. Due to the rapid time of flight, we knew it wasn’t the “normal” 152mm gun/howitzers which shelled us everyday. The former had a distinct delay between the noise of the muzzle blast and the scream and arrival of the shell, which a high velocity weapon does not have.

At one point, our illustrious leaders sent out a missive to all units looking for LAWS (Light Anti tank Weapons). Ironically, months before, the XXIV Corp HQ had demanded we turn them in because guys were getting caught in the back blast when the operator failed to clear the area behind him before firing. I kept mine and kept it well hidden. I never turned in anything I could scrounge and thought I could use.

During this time, our battery commander Captain Mixon, asked me if I had one. I replied that as he knew, XXIV Corp HQ. had ordered all LAWS turned in. He smiled, noting that I dodged answering the question and said, well, if “someone” hadn’t turned one in, and said LAW were to somehow appear at the bunker closest to the road to Laos (QL 9), he would appreciate it. On the way, Cap.

To answer your question as to what I’d have done if I saw a enemy tank. Well, logically there wasn’t much you could do, except hide. Even with a bunch of LAWs it’s a total mismatch. After all, it’s not called a LIGHT anti-tank weapon for nothing. In an infantry unit there’s nothing you’d have that could possibly disable a tank, never mind destroy it. I was in an artillery unit, so I suppose we would have taken it on in a direct fire mode with the howitzers. However, to say that this was unusual is an understatement. I doubt this was ever covered, or even contemplated, in any artillery field manual!

I find the sergeants reply to Bruce’s message totally normal. Idiots in the chain of command routinely disregard any info they get that upsets their preconceived notions. For example, during Lam Son we dug up fragments of enemy shells that contained the knurling band marks, and matched them to the NATO manual for identifying Warsaw Pact artillery. Clearly, they were from 152mm. gun/howitzers. When we informed our Battalion HQ of this, they insisted we MUST be mistaken. You see, their superiors at XXIV Corp. HQ. Intelligence was sure that while the NVA may have had MEDIUM artillery (122mm and smaller) in the area, there was NO WAY they could possibly have HEAVY artillery, i.e. a 152mm gun/howitzer. I guess nobody at HQ bothered to tell the NVA.

Budd Russell
Delta 1/11th Inf, 5th Inf Division
Vietnam ’69-’70

I was on the DMZ and we always came in contact with the NVA. One time, my company was shelled by NVA artillery.  And while on FSB Fuller, about five miles from the DMZ, we received over six hundred 120mm mortar rounds and rockets.  The mortars were mounted on a rail car hidden in a cave in North Vietnam.  They wheeled it out each day to drop some rounds on us. We had Phantoms come up from Da Nang almost every day. Eventually the entrance to the cave started to show with all the foliage being bombed. We were on that base forty-three days.

If we saw a tank, we’d probably think it was one of ours, and that it was in our AO by mistake. We would have called it into the TOC. We’d probably would have followed it at a distance because it would have made easy walking. We chopped our way through the jungle everyday. No trails, too dangerous. Each squad carried an M-72 LAW so we knew we had the firepower to take it out [if it was NVA]. The M79 wouldn’t do the job fast enough. I’m sure we would have been told to stand down while they sent something to take it out. We would probably be told to keep an eye on it so it couldn’t get away. If the tank was taken out, I can imagine some of my men would want their pictures taken while they stood on top of it. Just like the fools who would stand on the 750 pound bombs that didn’t go off after a B-52 strike. We found about ten 750 pounders during my tour. Twice there were three laying next to each other. I often wonder if they are still in the jungle in Quang Tri Province today.

Generally, my men never backed down from a figh—but we always had to remind the FNG’s not to pick up, or kick unexploded ordinance. We saw plenty of dud mortar rounds and dud hand grenades—both American and Chicom. Our sister company,  Bravo 1/11, had several men killed because a FNG kicked a dud mortar round.

Budd is the author of the excellent NCOIC Locator website.

Ralph Crowe
Delta 1/7 First Cavalry Division
Vietnam/Cambodia 69-70

Wow! What would I do? You cannot run, so what are your options? If you wanna survive you gotta do whatever it takes. I had to ask myself that question when I got to Nam. I think that I would fire HE rounds from a 90 mm recoilless rifle. If that wasn’t possible I would try and fire as many LAWs as I could. Barring those two options I guess I would be shit out of luck!

Randen Pederson
Bravo 1/7 First Cavalry  Vietnam ’69

I’d be all what the fuck?!? I’d be scared. If I had my wits about me I’d try to hit it as perpendicular to the side or back as I could. I don’t know as I’d do anything special after, if there was an after. It would have been my first time to shoot a LAW. The LTs liked to have that fun when we used them. Maybe get questioned by the Captain I suppose. Maybe eat some peaches and pound cake if I had any. I probably wouldn’t say much. I am/was a quiet guy.

Never even saw one of our tanks in the jungle. We did work with a company of APCs for a few days once. I thought those guys had the life—gobs of ammo—3 machine guns per APC (2 M60’s and an M2) never had to hump a damn pack. Vulnerable to mines and RPGs though.

Towards the end of my tour a platoon in Bravo company would get ice cream for a kill on the next log. Maybe we’d get ice cream.


Top image: North Vietnamese troops with AKs atop T-34 tanks. Circa 1960. Source: wwiiafterwwii