By Richard H. Dick James
54 years ago, August 1967, I was a Staff Sergeant E-6, assigned as the Demolition Sergeant on Detachment A-421 (Ba Xoai), Company D (Detachment C-4), 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), in the Mekong Delta (IV Corps) of South Vietnam, having just been assigned there. As for weapons, Ba Xoai was flush with them. We had a 106mm recoilless rifle, a 4.2-inch mortar, two 81mm mortars, two 57mm recoilless rifles and two 50-caliber machine guns. Also, we were within range of a friendly 4.2-inch mortar in Ba Chuc, 105mm howitzers in Triton and 155mm howitzers in Chi Lang. Ba Xoai had more possible fire support than any camp I had been in, and was in as tenuous a position as my first camp, Cai Cai (A-412, renumbered A-431). Shortly after arrival I got into the swing of things. I set up a FDC (fire direction control) system for our 4.2” mortar and plotted some coordinates for likely fire missions. I test fired on some of those locations, registering the azimuth, elevation, and propellant charge information for future use. One of my registration targets was a likely VC approach route for attacking our Ba Chuc outpost (OP). A team member assigned to the OP acted as my forward observer (FO), communicating changes for each round, to eventually strike the selected target area. When the round struck the target location, I recorded the mortar tube’s azimuth, elevation, and HE (high explosive) round propellant charge.
I was asked to demolish a large boulder in camp. The problem was, it was very near the team house, about ten feet away. I utilized the “mudcapping” method of removal. Using dynamite and tamping material (sandbags and dirt), I placed the explosive charges over existing cracks I could find and tamped the charges with about a foot of mud. I managed to chip away large portions of the boulder until nothing of consequence remained. I managed to do the job with not one hole in the team house.
The only thing I disliked about my assignment was that neither the detachment commanding officer or 1LT Tomlinson would let me go on a combat patrol. Special Forces in Vietnam had an unofficial policy of not permitting its men to go on combat patrols during their last month in country. I thought this policy sucked, although it was probably a logical policy. Studies had shown that most American troops were killed during their first and last months in country. That probably occurred due to troops being green and naïve during their first month in country and being cocky and overconfident during the last month of their tour.
I begged, and I pleaded, and begged, and pleaded, and might have even shed a tear. I guess CPT Gibson and LT Tomlinson finally got tired of listening to me whine and permitted me to go on just one more patrol, in an area that wasn’t considered to be particularly dangerous. They were right. We made no contact. I don’t think we even ran across a friendly farmer. Oh well, at least I got my way, and my combat patrol. I was happy!
Because nobody in camp knew how to operate a 4.2-inch mortar, I had to give a crash course to the team. We seemed to be getting a lot of new people in Special Forces who weren’t cross-trained in other fields. Even the team commanding officers and executive officers were coming in with little military experience, as well as little or no combat experience. On top of that, A-Detachments were becoming dangerously short-handed.
We got a Heavy Weapons Leader shortly before I departed, but the only heavy weapon he was familiar with was the 106mm recoilless rifle. In fact, he hadn’t even gone through Special Forces training, so he wasn’t SF qualified. He had been in the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg and came to Nam to be assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, only to be shanghaied by our Special Forces Group. Our new man was a part of the increasingly large group of men being assigned to our Special Forces detachments, who had never taken part in any Special Forces training. USARV had granted Group the authority to recruit, from the 90th and 22nd Replacement Battalions, Special Forces-trained men and non-Special Forces trained enlisted men who were MOS qualified and possessed other qualifications required for assignment to Special Forces.
One evening our Ba Chuc outpost, at the base of Nui Giai (one of the Seven Mountains), was assaulted by VC. A call for help was made to our camp. I was told that VC were massed in a gully just outside of the outpost. I knew exactly where that gully was. I had pre-registered it with our 4.2” mortar a few days prior.
I raced out to the 4.2-inch mortar with another team member and proceeded to set up the mortar for firing, even though the Army recommended a four-man crew to man the mortar. I set all the data I had recorded for that target; tube azimuth and elevation, and HE round charge, then fired the first round, waiting for further word from the OP. It came back as, “On target, fire for effect.” I sent round after round into that gully, including some I targeted for further up the draw in the hill. My teammate prepped the rounds, measuring the correct propelling charge for each. Because we were firing for effect, all the charges were the same, thus speeding the operation. I was firing faster than the recommended sustained rate of fire, so fast that the mortar tube became too hot to touch. In fact, one round pre-ignited because the heat of the barrel ignited the charge as the round dropped down the tube, prior to planned ignition, lobbing that high explosive round barely over the pit wall, landing on the ground about 20 feet away.
Wow! My heart skipped a beat; in fact probably quite a few. That was SCARY! I was extremely thankful it didn’t blow. It apparently had not armed itself prior to ejection. Later that evening I destroyed the round, in place. The assault was beaten back. The report from the OP was that my rounds had landed in the middle of the VC and had done major damage to the assaulting force, causing them to have to retreat. The OP team members thanked me profusely. When I first arrived at Ba Xoai I had considered that draw and gully to be a possible attack route against the OP and had, therefore, plotted it on my firing chart shortly after arriving at Ba Xoai. Having the azimuth and elevation data already plotted was what made it possible to get the first rounds on target. I was elated.
I later heard of cases in which other camps went through the same hectic 4.2” firing, in which rounds pre-ignited. Most resulted in no friendly casualties, but a few resulted in deadly outcomes. It was difficult to think “safety” when hard-pressed and going on maximum adrenalin.
From my book #4 (“SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences in Vietnam Book 4”), of my four-book set of “SLURP SENDS!” Books #1 (“SLURP SENDS! On Becoming a Green Beret Book 1”), #2 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of an A-Team Green Beret Book 2”), #3 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret in Vietnam Book 3”), and #4 are available on Amazon, or from me.PHOTOS: Me preparing rounds for registration fire / Our 4.2” mortar, covered by a poncho / Puffs of smoke from the rounds striking, with Nui Giai in the background (my photos)SLURP SENDS!