VIETNAM: A PERSONAL ACCOUNT
SP4 Roger W. Moeller

I began this account as a short background to the photos. When I received several e-mails from veterans requesting more details, I added more and more. The second section is on the aftermath, but includes other episodes. Internal links for photos

I was in Vietnam from February 1969 to April 1970. I was first assigned to XXIV Corps, 108th Artillery Group, 6th Battalion, 33rd Artillery, HHB stationed in Phu Bai {south of Hue) in I Corps. My Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was 13E20 -- Fire Direction Control (FDC). With my spatial perception and map making abilities (thanks to archaeology) I was assigned to the Intelligence Section (S2). The unit was later relocated to Dong Ha, six miles south of the DMZ. When 6/33rd was deactivated and sent home in 1970, I declined to follow. I extended my year tour by three months and was transferred to 1/44th (Automatic Weapons Self Propelled) Artillery in Dong Ha.

My duties were extremely varied depending upon the circumstances. Although our unit was under strength, we still had to have people trained in all duties required by our organizational manual. I drove and maintained a jeep, performed security inspections at fire bases, was a courier for payroll and classified documents, stood perimeter, detail, and interior guard duty, made maps for forward observers directing artillery fire, operated a network of observers for artillery target acquistion, clerked for the section, wrote and conducted briefings on enemy activities, and was trained in nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare decontamination and Graves Registration. For most of the time I was a PFC earning less than $200 a month.

DRIVING
Driving a jeep under combat conditions was an acquired skill. We were constantly warned not to exceed 35 miles an hour under any circumstances since jeeps were small, light, and prone to tipping. One of the Korean War-era sergeants taught me to control a jeep in a high-speed skid without flipping over. Many times I had to dodge obstacles. Once a group of water buffalo was been driven toward traffic. This could have been an ambush or an attack on a convoy. Standing orders were to never stop unless the vehicle was disabled. If we stopped to shoot, the traffic behind us was at risk.

I was at Con Thien (a mile from the DMZ) for a fire base security inspection when all flights out were cancelled. I had come in by Huey and had to go out by jeep. The driver was very agitated about driving less than 10 miles. He had seen a truck hit a land mine. I suggested we wait for another jeep to go in front of us. After waiting for an hour and not seeing another vehicle, he got bored and drove anyway.

Another time I was returning from a security inspection at Panther II, a fire base outside of Hue. I saw a series of small dust clouds in front of the jeep and realized I was being shot at. The officer I was driving expected me to slow down instead of driving into the bullets, but I sped up and the shooting stopped. The adrenaline was still pumping when I sped through the back gate at Camp Eagle, home of the 101st Airborne. As I started to slow down, I heard a siren, which usually meant incoming rockets, but this was an MP. I stopped, and he wrote me a traffic ticket for speeding. I was doing 15 MPH in a 5 MPH zone. In the Army the ranking person is responsible, so the Captain got the ticket. The MP wanted the Captain's assurance that I would be reprimanded appropriately. As the MP turned to leave, the Captain started to scream at me about how unsafely I had been driving. When the MP drove away, the Captain smiled, tore up the ticket, and swore in Spanish at the MP.

My most serious driving incident was leaving Camp Eagle. I had gone into the camp through the front gate and parked to wait for the Captain attending the General's morning briefing. There was a lot of activity along the road on the way in and that was a concern. Anything that slows traffic could result in an ambush or attack. I decided to leave by another gate, go through an open area, and get back to Highway 1 to return to the southern edge of Phu Bai. As I came over a rise, I noticed that the dirt road was glistening. As I slowed, I completely lost control of the jeep. It was floating on a freshly oiled road after a brief shower. Road oiling was common to keep the dust down, but water and oil do not mix. I took my foot off the accelerator and steered into the skid. I was coming down a very steep hill and slidding back and forth. Hitting the steep ditch on either side of the road would have flipped the jeep. At times the jeep was slidding sideways, which also could have caused a flip. I was not gaining any control, but I was slowing a little. As I looked ahead, I only saw disaster. Highway 1 had a tank convoy moving south and mixed jeep and truck traffic heading north. If I had enough luck to shoot directly across the road, I would mire into a rice paddy with a sudden stop that would propel us from the jeep. My only real chance was to fall into line between the tanks. As I got closer to the intersection, the oil was covered by dust raised by the tanks. I still couldn't stop, but I managed to catch the right rear tire in the drainage ditch, wrench the steering wheel sharply to the right and fall into line behind a tank. I thought I was out of danger, but the Captain screamed, "GAS" and reached for his gas mask. Momentarily distracted by him, I almost ran into the tank in front of me. I was only a few feet away from impact when I regained control. The Captain had mistaken the diesel exhaust from the tank for a gas attack. After this, he would not let anyone else drive him anywhere.

USING ARTILLERY
The 6/33rd had 105mm, 105mm Airmobile, and 155mm artillery pieces. I could also use firepower from 175mm and 8 inch guns for perimeter defense. The 1/44th Arty had Dusters and Quad50s. I had seen these in action and welcomed the opportunity to be more closely involved. However, by 1970 field operations had been drastically curtailed because the US withdrawl was proceeding. All of our actions were limited to defense.

In Phu Bai, and later in Dong Ha, our most frequent encounter with the war was incoming 122mm rockets. From late afternoon to early morning, rockets could be expected. They came in groups of 10 or fewer at a time. The worst damage I saw in Phu Bai was the PX complex getting hit followed by a major fire. In Dong Ha it was a fuel dump in the compound. We were aware that at any time a major rocket barrage could be followed by a direct attack. Because of this, we fired at every launch site. With three of the towers observing the same launch, I could plot the position of the site and direct artillery fire. On many occasions, unlaunched rockets were destroyed on the ground.

MILITARY COURTESY
Having just completed Basic and Advanced Training in the States, I was accustomed to saluting anything that moved. This continued during the early in-processing at Long Binh (near Saigon). When I was sent to Dong Ha for assignment, even before being issued an M-16 rifle, I stepped off the C-130 transport at the airport and saluted a Marine Captain (the Marines still occupied most of the base). He just shook his head and walked away. A jeep soon appeared with the unit markings for 108th Artillery Group, and the driver read a list of names. I was the only one on the list that was present. I was full of questions, but he had no time for the new guy. As we approached Group headquarters, I heard a siren, the jeep stopped, and the driver ran toward a bunker as a rocket came into the compound. Nice welcome. Coming out of the bunker, I started to raise my right hand to salute a Lieutenant. He grabbed my hand and said, "Don't you ever salute in the open. They could be watching us, and I would be a sniper's target. Show your respect by following orders." When I was assigned farther south in Phu Bai, the rule was to come to attention and salute only indoors in the presence of an officer of the rank of Colonel and above. All officers assigned to the unit were to be verbally greeted as "Sir" with no mention of rank. Most officers who demanded respect did not deserve it.

One officer in particular was a clear and present danger. He needed to have his ticket punched: getting a combat assignment before retirement to up his pension. He had been so steeped in the culture of flying a desk through red tape that he wanted to experience everything. His driver for all of a month had 4 months left in-country and volunteered for Long Range Reconnaisance Patrol (LRRPs), because he figured it was safer. These guys were inserted by Huey "near" Laos, hung out for a few days collecting intelligence, and then made their way back overland on foot. Playing Charlie's game in his own backyard was very risky, but safer than driving this officer.

My one experience substituting for his replacement driver was enough to make me want to go LRRPs too. He wanted to see the effects of a Harrassment and Interdiction (H&I ) artillery barrage. H & I was several batteries of six guns firing multiple high explosive (HE) rounds with various fuses. Some air bursts, some ground impact. The goal was to second guess troop concentrations or movements, destroy rocket launch sites, or even to clear (prep) an LZ (landing zone). As I came up the last high ground overlooking the prep/H&I site, I saw a perfectly clear blue sky. He urged me to get over the ridge and down here. I panicked. The barrage had not happened yet and we were in the open. The dark clouds and torn up vegetation from exploding artillery rounds were absent. Since the barrage was imminent, I did want anyone down there to see us. Rather than try to explain, I just stopped and got out of the jeep to "check the back tire." And then it happened, and then it was gone. He got his show, but we were almost the opening act.

One night I was accidentally left alone in the target acquisition section of the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) bunker. Normally there was a radio operator, someone to plot coordinates for artillery strikes, and the officer of the day (OD). All of a sudden one of the observation tower guards reported a flash (incoming rocket). I started to plot the position (calculated from the azimuth and distance from his location), when he very excitedly calls for a fire mission. His tower is taking heavy machine gun fire. At this point a Major walks into the bunker. I tell the tower I cannot shoot at that target and pass the request to the FDC radio operator to contact base defense for suppressive ground fire. As the second tower reports the flash, I reach over my head to turn on the siren while I am plotting the position. As soon as the third tower reported the flash, I determined its coordinates and relayed the fire mission to the FDC. When that was done, I greeted the Major and asked if I could help him.

He did not know me and asked if it was normal for me to work alone. I replied that the regular radio man was in the latrine and that the OD was doing his rounds. Then he wanted to know why I did not plot the coordinates of the machine gun firing on the tower. That was not a PFC's decision to make. I told him that I could not hit it without risk. How could I know that if I did not plot the position? I knew the area and knew where the artillery batteries were. I could not shoot over the flight line at Phu Bai airport. I could not shoot over the village at the machine gun because it would have been on a direct line toward the bunker line. I did not have an available battery to shoot between the village and tower. When the radio man and the Captain returned, the Major took them outside to explain what had happened in their absence. I don't know the details, but, for the first and last time, the Captain brought me a cup of coffee.

Late one afternoon in Phu Bai, many of us were off-duty sitting around the hootch, looking out of the doorway, and talking about life in general. Almost absentmindedly, one guy put on his helmet, another his flak jacket, but no one was rushing or talking about what he doing. I put on my boots and reached for my M-16 with a bandolier of 10 magazines. We were striding toward the bunker line when the first rocket came in and the siren began to wail. More rockets came in and exploded near XXIV Corps headquarters behind us.

After the all clear sounded, we wondered why the first person had reached for his helmet, but no one could remember who it was. Even stranger, no one knew why he had followed the lead or why we moved out before the first rocket came in. From the bunker line, rocket launches could be easily seen at dark as quick flashes of light, but it was not dark enough yet and no one could have seen it from the hootch. They sound like trains when they pass over head, but we were out before the first one came in. We had been through so many rocket attacks together that we all sensed the same thing: this was a good time for rockets. We had spent so much time as a team that we were very sensitive to each other's moves.

People are always deriding the military way of doing things, but the consistency had a very positive benefit. At Fort Sill we learned how to conduct artillery fire missions, how to select munitions appropriate to each target, and how to work as a team. One night in Dong Ha I couldn't sleep so I went to the TOC. As I walked in, a voice on the radio asked for a fire mission and gave the coordinates. I glanced at the map and said, "Friendlies in the area, no shooting" at the same time the sergeant told the person on the radio the same thing. In the background, we could hear a lot of gunfire, and the voice repeated the fire mission request. His unit was taking heavy fire from all sides and was calling the fire on top of his own position. We had little experience firing in direct support of field units; our missions were mostly perimeter defense. Intentionally firing onto a friendly position was against standing orders.

The situation was desperate. We were the only hope. The team put together a fire mission in a few minutes involving two batteries with six 105mm howitzers each firing two rounds of high explosive (HE) with variable time (VT) fuses. The VT fuses were set to explode the rounds at varying heights above the ground. We did not want to risk HE impacts among the friendlies. The 24 rounds with VT fuses would explode nearly simultaneously filling the air with steel fragments. The voice on the radio verified that his men were wearing flak jackets and steel helmets and were dug in, covered with sand bags, and anything else they could find. We gave them an estimated time on target (TOT), and they ceased fire to draw the enemy closer.

After the rounds exploded, the radio was silent. We called back several times before there was an answer. The mission worked perfectly with no friendly casualties. The voice thanked us, they had no wounded, and they were clearing out without checking enemy casualties. Not collecting intelligence on the attackers was a breach of procedure only allowed under the most dire circumstances.

If this had not worked out successfully, the ranking person in the room would have expected to have been court martialed for disobeying the standing orders. Everyone else would have faced some form of discipline for not disagreeing with the decision to fire. But, it was the right decision. The man in the field assessed his options, knew the risks, and made his decision.We knew instinctively what to do and agreed to do it, because it was what we had been trained to do: to achieve maximum surprise and injury for people in the open, fill the air with exploding artillery rounds.

TOURS and PROJECTS
Although I was technically on duty 24 hours a day, I had a lot of free time to go sightseeing. One day a large group of us with our M-16s formed a convoy of 2.5 ton trucks and jeeps with mounted machine guns. Someone had hired an English-speaking Vietnamese guide, and we visited the Royal Tombs outside of Hue. The tombs of Emperor Khai Dinh and Tu Duc were especially memorable. Each had sustained damaged during the Tet Offensive in 1968, but local people were maintaining them to some degree.

When living in Phu Bai, we were involved in a Medical Civic Action Project (MEDCAP) at a Catholic orphanage in Hue. The doctor would check the kids for diseases, treat common injuries, and offer health tips. We also made frequent trips bringing clothing collected by groups in the States. The nuns were pleased to get the clothing, but always asked for other "surplus" things. I saw the kids wearing the clothes, but never saw any of "surplus" items on subsequent visits. I suspect that they were sold for other things that the nuns could not get from us.

APPLIED ANTHROPOLOGY
After a security inspection outside of Mai Loc, I visited a Bru village nine miles from Khe Sanh. The Special Forces sergeant assigned to this Montagnard group was a true applied anthropologist. He really liked his assignment and trained the people to protect themselves. They accepted the military assistance, but resisted his other efforts. He had them dig wells because the VC had poisoned the river. The people still drank from the river and got sick because they knew that stagnant water was not good for them.

The people collected engineer stakes from abandoned positions risking cuts from barbed wire, land mines, and booby traps. They sold them for $.05 to the Vietnamese when the going price was $2.00. He told them to cut out the middle man. They refused since they needed an economic relationship with the Vietnamese (who thought that they were ignorant primitives) to gain a better social position.

R&R
I went to Vung Tau (60 miles south of Saigon) twice on R&R. Vung Tau was an open city where only the cops carried guns and not in the open. The US maintained a very nice R&R center, a beautiful beach (with machine guns in the lifeguard towers in case of sharks), and a congenial relationship with the locals. We were free to take busses into town, walk the streets, and eat in restaurants without being armed or escorted. Although I was constantly aware of everything around me, I never felt afraid.

Continued

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Copyright 2000 by Roger W. Moeller