This last month I received a request from the National Archives Foundation asking me to write down some experiences from my tour of duty in Vietnam combat. Apparently, this is a national effort to gather the stories before they are lost in a disappearing generation. I have dozens of memoirs from my tour of duty, but here I’ve chosen to recall these two, because they describe how fragile life can be.
I served on the front lines of combat in Viet Nam and, in retrospect; Christmas Eve 1970 was the most formative and life-challenging month of my life. It was the first day of the so-called “Christmas truce.”
U.S. soldiers in field operations hated the Christmas Cease Fire truce that was about to start on December 24th at 10pm and go through New Year’s Day. The Christmas truce concept during war, dating from WWI, was created by Christian countries without considering that it made no sense to the non-Christian enemy we were fighting in 1965-1973. The truce was negotiated that both sides would stop all maneuvers and shooting at each other for six days. The U.S. politicians thought is was a great symbolic idea, but the enemy thought of it as an opportunity with one-sided rules of engagement intentions.
Throughout the Viet Nam war, that “Christmas truce” ended up being a most harrowing week for our troops in the field of combat, and a chance for the enemy to take advantage of static U.S. field positions. In this war, the Americans owned the day with firepower and the Vietnamese owned the nights with surprise and ambush. Successful night ambushes from the enemy were set up by probes and exploration to understand weak spots in our defenses. That took time. In a 360-degree combat environment, constant movement of our units was the best defense. The Christmas truce had the effect of holding our soldiers in one place for six days, thus making them much more vulnerable. There were 81 reported violations of the 1970 cease-fire, but probably 300 or 400 more that were never tabulated. Sadly, U.S. soldiers, marines and sailors died in these periods of supposed peace.
In 1970, we located our six 105mm howitzers on Agent Orange-cleared hills called a ‘fire base’ in the geographical middle of the infantry jungle operations. I was a 24-year-old artillery battery commander of 155 men in the 101st Airborne Division supporting infantry units maneuvering within a five-mile radius around my firebase.
We had a forward observer (FO) lieutenant and radio telephone operator (RTO) team in each of the infantry companies in the field that managed our supporting fire when needed in a firefight. The FO team was responsible for making us aware to the exact location of their units at all times. Our fire would be used in offensive preparations in the day and defensive support fire for troops after they stopped at night.
For defense after stopping each evening, the FO would ‘shoot in’ artillery targets around the stop position and give them names so it could be quickly requested, if attacked. These targets were placed in locations completely around the unit about 500m away from them. There were four to six of them for each infantry stop location. In crisis attack, the FO might call for fire with the following message: “Fire mission; from ‘Betty’ right 50(m) drop 100(m).” ‘Betty’ could be the pre-located target. Pre-shot targets saved critical time and added accuracy to fend off night attacks.
‘Shooting them (defensive targets) in’ called for first shooting a smoke marking round (white phosphorus) and then walking subsequent high explosive rounds in toward the unit’s location. The standard protocol was that the smoke marker would be shot first about 1000m away from the infantry stop location and then the FO would give iterative instructions to walk in nearer until 300 to 500m away. A typical radio command after the smoke round might sound like, “Right 50, drop 200” which translated to: the next rounds should be, from the FO’s view, moved right 50m and 200m closer. It took about 15 minutes and about four iterations for each target to be set, and then we progressed to completing the other four to six targets. Being that there were three to four companies in the field, shooting in defensive targets was a nightly activity from dusk to 3 am. Having six guns, we could pair a set of two guns and work with three different companies at the same time, firing in different directions.
Artillery gun and ammunition settings and communications were controlled by the Fire Direction Center (FDC) on the firebase where I spent the majority of my time at night overseeing. There was a Fire Direction Officer in charge, but as the overall commander who would just listen, watch procedures and make critical decisions when necessary. For example, if a FO was in combat action and wanted the artillery rounds to explode on top of his unit out of desperation, I had to make the calls to accept those directions knowing (or not) whether we could have friendly casualties.
The center of the FDC had a large square wooden board covered by a map and colored pins to indicate the center location of our artillery position and the various infantry units from position and targets. When there was a ‘call for fire,’ the computations for the gun settings were both calculated by a computer and by a hand slide rule from the physical board pin’s measurements. The calculated gun settings were compared to the hand calculations, and if within tolerance of difference, the computer settings were relayed to set the elevation and azimuth for each gun. Coordinates for friendly unit locations on the ground were always sent in a daily rotating code to avoid enemy interception.
On December 24, 1970, we knew we would have a challenging day as it broke the routine. The truce was coming on us. The infantry wanted to move as far away as possible from their previous night’s position. Being that they would be stationary for six days, they wanted more pre-set targets shot in than usual. On that day, the period of time between when they stopped moving and the deadline when the cease-fire took effect would be shorter than normal. It would require unusual speed to place the defensive fires.
Each infantry unit would give us the coordinates of the stop position for where they hoped to reach by sundown that day. It was not uncommon for them to encounter terrain or obstacles that delayed reaching their goal. Often, if delayed, they would keep traveling into the night to get to their destination. Because of the cease-fire deadline, that extra time to travel into the night was not available on December 24th and one unit fell behind schedule.
We instructed our FO in late afternoon that if that one unit did not stop soon we would have no time to fire defensive targets. They heeded our warnings and stopped short of their planned destination. The FO, after consulting with the infantry commander, updated their stop location coordinates. We pinned it on our map and it looked logical for the direction they were traveling.
He asked for immediate defensive fire to start. He knew they were more than an hour late and asked that we skip the first smoke marking round and immediately shoot high explosive rounds. We agreed, but told him that without smoke first, we would have to move away from him by another 500m on the first shot for safety. He gave us the first pre-fire target coordinates. We checked the calculations, and the computer and the manual method matched. We relayed instructions to the guns and they fired a pair simultaneously. Due to distance of flight it took a minute or two for the rounds to arrive and we continued our firing for three other companies. When the rounds were expected to land, the FDC would announce to the FO on the radio “splash,” and he would recognize by saying “splash out.”
I immediately knew something was wrong when “splash out” was cut off in mid-phrase. We could not raise our FO on the radio. It took another 45 seconds for the infantry net to call over to us to “cease fire, unit hit!” The rounds had landed in the center of the company instead of 1500m away. A catastrophe on Christmas Eve was unfolding.
There was strict protocol to a ‘cease fire, unit hit’ and it was to move away from the guns and drop pencils down in the FDC. It was a military crime scene. The commander was allowed to go to the guns and check the settings, but not touch them. I did and they matched the computer data called out. It was not a gun error. I then returned to the FDC and checked the pin placements and calculations. They matched our known information. Regardless, all activity had to stop to protect evidence and the soldiers backed away, awaiting an investigation from an independent officer.
The damage from our two rounds far exceeded our earliest fears…the infantry reported that our two rounds landed in the exact middle of the encampment of 75 troops and there were many casualties. There were only two Medevac helicopters available within a half-hour’s reach. Both were diverted to the accident scene, but darkness was fast approaching. There was a quick plan to use my firebase as a first-aid triage center to reduce the length of the helicopters’ round trips. There was nothing to do at my guns, so I took five men to help offload the Medevac as they arrived on our hilltop. I unloaded casualties for two hours, most of who had arrived without having had any time for previous first aid, so therefore, in immense pain. After first aid and morphine was given, the Medevacs started rotating to the rear area hospitals. The dead in black body bags were the last to be lifted out of the jungle and were placed in a row next to the helicopter landing area while the helicopters started their rotation to rear area hospitals for the living wounded. Flares were used to provide light.
Within two hours, the helicopters were called off station due to darkness and increasingly foggy weather. The wounded were evacuated and the dead were left behind for the next morning.
As the last helicopter of the evening sprayed me with dirt, I turned and, in the eerie light from a fog shrouded flare, I counted 10 body bags lined up side by side (two more of the wounded died en route to the rear). Someone had placed two U.S. flags over them but together they were not long enough to cover the row. It was ~11:30p on Christmas Eve and the truce had been in effect for 90 minutes.
The final toll was 12 dead and 10 wounded. (A day later, the New York Times carried the friendly-fire story on the top of page one.)
I returned to my unit mentally exhausted. I sat alone on a sand-bagged parapet wall with my head looking at the ground, trying to absorb what had happened. My uniform, wet from sweat and blood now got more soaked as my adrenalin collapsed and emotion took over. My mind whirled, asking what did it mean and why? What went wrong? Whose fault? I was spent and felt sorry for myself and for the affected families who would find out in the coming days what I knew then. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was the commander of troops that were equally devastated. What was I doing feeling sorry for myself instead of fulfilling my job as a leader? I made my way over to the two guns crews involved (about twelve men), and talked and tried to comfort them through the night, as all were devastated. At that time no one yet knew whose fault the accident was. The next dawn the fog lifted, the Medevacs returned to collect the remaining bodies and three chaplains flew in to relieve me. They spent that Christmas day with my troops while the FDC was closed and the guns isolated like a crime scene. I was now by myself.
Five days later when the investigation was complete, my unit was exonerated of any wrongdoing or mistake. All procedures, calculations and settings were checked to be accurate. The killing rounds landed only 5 meters away from their settings after traveling four miles. The tragedy was caused by the FO and the infantry commander misplotting their stop location by approximately ~1200 meters. Our FDC map pin placement of their unit location was wrong as a result. The unit moved farther than they thought and they misinterpreted their terrain. (There was no GPS back then.) The Army declared it as unavoidable and a no-blame friendly fire incident. Still, some 20 soldiers in my unit, including myself, know that we shot those rounds on Christmas Eve. It is a lifelong burden.
Time moved on and three months later my unit was named as ‘honor battery’ in the 101st Airborne and assigned to lead the helicopter assault to retake Hamburger Hill on the edge of the A Shau Valley that contained the Ho Chi Minh trail. I found myself in the first wave of two ‘slicks’ (slang for UH-1 Huey troop helicopters). We were aware that the North Vietnamese knew we were coming and would defend. The pre-attack preparation was fiercer than I had ever seen. Artillery rounds and rockets were exploding 50 yards in front of our descent into the landing zone. I, like the eight others on my slick, jumped off the helicopter four feet to the ground while it was moving forward to allow the helicopter to touch-and-go as rapidly as possible. I rolled, got up and ran to the perimeter. I could not tell if I was being shot at, as there were rockets exploding everywhere from the support Apache gunships. While I was running, I felt my right boot step on a hard surface that gave way about 2 inches into the ground. I kept running for cover.
Fast forward…the insertion was over and troops were arriving without fire and I went to see what I stepped on. It was a hand-made Viet Cong clap board mine, rigged to a 155mm artillery round through a battery. What saved my life was a thin layer of dirt between the contact strips deposited by a prior rainstorm. Another moment of fate, this time in my favor. I reflected back to Christmas Eve and how unlucky those guys in Company A of the 1/327th Infantry were when fate turned against them.
Ten days before my scheduled end of duty date, the Red Cross notified me in the field that my mother was in critical condition and potentially dying in Washington, D.C. They requested I evacuate immediately after dropping off my weapon and combat gear. The military procedurally requested that soldiers come back in civilian clothes, but I had no time. I wore the same worn and faded field uniform that I fought in on the plane back to the States.
I arrived in my uniform at San Francisco airport from a chartered United jet needing to change gates. While walking airport halls the people parted in front on me in seemingly utter shock. In addition, I was spat on and cat-called by over a dozen people. My appearance provoked fear and anger. I did not expect a celebration band, but I also did not expect the rude reception. Few soldiers came home to appreciation and we all stopped talking about it to anyone. I put my experiences in a locked corner of my mind. I did not discuss it for nearly three decades. Even then when I finally talked about it, I never discussed Christmas Eve.
I later got out of the service and went back to graduate school for environmental science and engineering. I left the service a long way behind me, committed to use the rest of my life to do something constructive for the world. In retrospect, it took me about 18 months to mentally normalize myself after Viet Nam. I never realized how skewed I was after returning to society. But I recovered quickly, although many did not. I still wonder about my two gun crews and how they coped.
There were many more harrowing experiences in those 12 months in the front lines of RVN. I came home unscratched physically, but not quite whole.
I was very fortunate and it was very formative. It has never left me and it brought forward lessons through my life that include:
- There really is something like fate. Your job in life is to survive what fate brings. Sometimes things happen that are unintended, illogical and tragic. Don’t let a tragic event define the rest of your life. You need to keep yourself going and not let it destroy you. Surviving crisis gives you an inner strength that serves you well in life.
- A leader’s role in crisis is out front with the casualties, the victims, and the fearful—not hiding behind self-pity, lawyers and PR experts. You lead with your feet because people are watching. Sometimes they don’t want you to solve things, they just want your presence.
- Accuracy or efficiency is meaningless if the overall plan is wrong.
- All the stresses of business don’t come close to life and death situations. Put your problems in perspective. Things could be much worse.
- Where you were born, who your parents were and your birth date matter, but are completely out of your control. You could have been born in the mid-1940’s in America and beat the draft …or spent time in RVN; or you could have been born in North Viet Nam and be very, very lucky to be alive today after serving in the war for nine years.
- War sometimes may be necessary for political reasons, but it is filled with both mental and physical tragedies that really affect people’s lives forever. It does not require an enemy’s gun to do the damage.
I am so pleased we are better with our soldiers and veterans today. Today, people ironically thank me for my long-ago service repeatedly when I felt like an outcast between 1970 and 1980. Soldiers never create their conflict. They are pawns of politics. But they have had to manage their lives and memories far longer than their service. You’ll never imagine what some have lived through, and they probably aren’t going to tell you for decades, if ever.
This has been my toughest story to tell. I have always felt like I am living on borrowed time and therefore, don’t want to waste it. For me there are never enough minutes in a day.
© 2016 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.