Trial By Fire

by: 1SG Lonnie Dotson
A troop, 3/4th Cav, 25th Inf Div
© 2000


Photo: 1SG Lonnie Dotson, A troop, 3/4th Cav, 25th Inf Div.I was a newly assigned Spec 4 to the famed 3rd Squadron 4th Us Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi. I had arrived in-country Feb 1969. The Division had ushered us "newbies" through a 5-day indoctrination Jungle school. I guess this was a way of quelling us nervous trigger fingers guys ... and before putting us with line units already in the field. I had been assigned to A Troop, who was operating around the area close to Nue Ba Den, "Black Virgin Mountain". (I often wondered if the US Army changed the name of that mountain so it sounded more ominous).

I wasn't in a real hurry to get with the unit but I knew if I stayed in the rear too long they'd put me to work doing some crap busy job. I caught the first re-supply convoy heading for the troop's night logger. A night logger was the way we spent the night when the troop wasn't in a Firebase. We would set-up a circular formation. We did this by pulling into a large rice paddy, with all the line platoons in file. We then would drive around in a large circle until the rear platoon linked-up with the lead platoon. We would all stop on command and steer our tanks and Tracks to the outside. This is like the old wagon train setup in the old movies. All the Headquarters and ash and trash tracks would be in the middle for command and control. We would then dig one man fighting holes between vehicles.

Each track carried a sheet of PSP (steel used for temp landing strips), this would be used as a top and we'd cover it with sandbags. This way it gave us extra security between our tracks. One man would dismount and fight from that bunker, while the rest of us would remain on the tank or personnel carrier. We would then get our tank tarps and tie them behind the tanks and make a quickie tent. This wasn't home but hey what the heck ... better than nutten.

I went to the supply room (there were about 10 of us) and the supply guys just threw us M-16's, ruck sacks, ammo pouches, flack jacket, and field gear. I asked if we would be zeroing our weapons and heard a resounding laughter from the REMF's. After all the gear was packed-up I was ready to go.

We headed out with the night resupply trucks. This convoy was about two or three 2 ' ton cargo trucks, fuel truck. This convoy carried the mail, fuel, ammo, and the evening meal that was cooked prior. When we arrived the troop commander met us. He welcomed us to the "Land of two way rifle range". We were broke into groups based upon the needs of the troop. I was selected to go to the tank section of third platoon.

I was greeted by the crew and assigned as the gunner. The tank commander (Scott), who looked like a battle harden trooper was actually just a young "Shake and Bake" E-5 (if I remember right he was about 4 years younger than I was). I had twice the time in service that he did.

Note: Shake 'n bake: During the late 60's the Army had a shortage of Battle experienced NCO's so they started a NCO school similar to OCS. They would pump out young inexperienced NCO's like the Armor school pumped-out Officers. I thought it was a real dumb idea, here I was used to NCO's having earning their rank through experience, and they were getting the rank like "shave tail butter bar 2LTs". The natural assumption was the more stripes the more experience.

The crew did what they could to prep me for what my role would be the next day. I'm sure most of their talk was "lets BS the new guy so we can scare the hell out of him" but it was interesting to sit and hear the stories.

Our mission was to go troop on line and sweep and re-con; put all three platoons on line and once in the area start shooting at bushes or any thing that looked out of place. This method would hopefully draw the enemy's fire. They (Charlie) wouldn't know if they had been found or not, so re-conning by fire was a preferred method to make contact. Most time I didn't know if we had made contact either. I didn't wear a headset, just the driver and CDR know what was really going on. I just reacted till someone yelled at me ....

On the Sheridan tanks the gunners mostly rode on the loaders hatch and fired either a 50 cal or m60 machine gun. The turrets were so small, cramped and hot it would have been too hard to function inside for long. Besides we never really had "hard targets", like other Tanks to shoot at so we mostly fired from the hip. The loaders were the only guys that remained in the turret.

I must have lulled myself into a doze, ignoring the constant out-going fire and didn't realize that we had taken in coming fire. The re-conning by fire worked! I didn't know just what to do now! My TC yelled to me to jump on the back deck and start passing him fresh 50-cal ammo. He had a rack welded on the back deck that carried about 100 cans of ammo. Each can had been oiled down to help keep the 50 well oiled and cool. I started passing the cans up to the TC upside down so the oil would run down on the ammo before it was used. As I was humping ammo, I noticed an explosion from the TC's copula. I assumed that we had taken a Rocket and he was hit. I tried to drag the TC out and see if he was hurt. He yelled that he had just had the 50 blow-up. The timing and head space could have come out from its settings and blown a shell. I'd been humping ammo on the back deck I was hot and sweating to death! The driver needed to keep the engine up to 1200 RMPS' to keep the batteries charged .... Anyway the Sheridan's exhaust went straight up through the top of the deck. The old tanks (M48A3's) blew the exhaust out the back! I was standing on the engine grates, passing the ammo.

Since his 50 was beyond repair, he yelled for me to find some 16 ammo. He didn't like to fire the main gun. The tube was a lot shorter than the M48's and the bore was almost twice as large. So the concussion was really bad. It felt like setting on top of a wild bucking horse while getting hit in the face with a burning 2x4. So we avoided firing that beast as much as possible. I even heard of TC's who sabotaged the guns just so they wouldn't have to fire them. So our 50 were gone, and now we were down to our personnel weapons. Our only weapons were two M-16's and four 45cal pistols. I was a little nervous to say the least, I even thought about just leaving wanting to run! I kept thinking man this is crap! I'm going to run like hell ... then I realized, I was in a jungle in the middle of War Zone III ... hmm where would I go? I soon came to the realization at that moment that all my hero's in all the war movies had bigger balls than I did. War no longer was the glory stuff I had grown up on. This was serious stuff, real bullets, real death and dying. I didn't leave anything over here and didn't really care if these people had freedom and my expense or not.

I was soon brought back to reality and Scott got my attention. He wanted me to scrounge some small arms ammo. I just reacted and jumped off the back deck ... this had to be better than sitting there waiting to get shot. I ran to the Medic track that sitting behind us about 50 feet.

It was stopped and the medics were waiting for calls for medical assist. They saw me running towards them and must have thought I needed first aid. When I jumped down to start my sprint to the medical track I must have twisted my ankle, cause when the medics saw me running towards them they tried to grab me and put me inside. Thinking I was hurt ... man I sure wanted to just lay down and get some rest. I had to admit (darn it) that I was only there to get some ammo. I grabbed all I could get my hands on, and dodging bullets ran back. I was the only dude on the ground with Charlie in this whole battle. I soon realized that if you're with a mounted Cav unit you just don't wonder around on the ground. I felt a little naked ....

The whole troop was blasting away, and the fire was intense. I ran to the side of the track, (didn't even want to try the front and get shot by my own guys or Charlie) Just as I grabbed a hold of the fender to hoist myself up "BOOM". The main gun fired, and as they fired the whole Troop started to pull back. It was a maneuver to keep Charlie's head down while we pulled back. As the main gun fired I was knocked back on my butt and watched in horror as I was caught in front of the whole troop in the open without any protection! I didn't really know what to do ... I just laid there for a moment or two ... finally, they must have noticed me ... the tank pulled up and gave me time to remount and get on before they pulled back .... Resuming their position back on line. Phew! Scott had forgotten that he sent me back I guess, or was too busy to think straight. We broke contact and moved to an assembly area.

We had a good laugh afterwards ... they thought I had been shot and killed! Right after this point of embarrassing situation ... I didn't understand why we had to break contact and haul-booty so fast.

Soon as we arrived at an assembly area (some old rice paddy) and stopped, I had to help extract our driver (he had the drivers hatch stuck, and couldn't get out, he was scared to death) we saw the most amazing sight. Explosions were going off, two at a time ... all in a line. I noticed way way up in the sky barely visible to the eye, there was a flight of B52's! Now I understand why we had to move so fast. We had run into a North Vietnamese Infantry Regiment and its higher headquarters wanted to blast them to hell using a B52 strike. ...Made sense to me ... That was my first experience with those bad boys. Next I was told we would have to go back over that area and access the bomb damage. Now that's another story ....

Lonnie Dotson,
1SG (retired)
A troop, 3/4th Cav, 25th Inf Div
Submitted: November 01, 1999 8:42 AM Logo
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