A Shau Valley!
“Well I am going to need your help; I don’t really know what I am doing,” the LT said matter-of-factly.

by: Ted McCormick,
11b 10 Pfc, B Co 1/327th Inf 101st Abn Div (AMBL)
Vietnam, 1969-1970
(© 2007)

SHORT! A Shau Valley and a new LT ! 1970
by: Ted McCormick

I went to Sydney Australia for R&R (Hue was off limits to Army personnel), and once for berating an incompetent SSG in front of my platoon (I was right). I had never sought out advancement within the ranks and was content to stay a private, do my job to the best of my ability, and get out.

I was suspicious of the Lieutenant’s statement there was a mix-up of orders; many times career officers would request to be placed in an infantry unit just for the CIB (Combat Infantry Badge), it looked good for advancement. I suspected this was the case.                                                                               

I went to Sydney Australia for R&R in Sept. 1970. What a relief from the field, I had planned it so that I saved my R&R towards the end of my tour. I spent seven wonderful days in Australia, all the time knowing I had to go back into the A Shau Valley with my unit when I returned.

I met an Australian girl while in Sydney and towards the end of my stay, and she tried to convince me to stay and go AWOL. There were a lot of American soldiers who had done so and were living openly in Sydney and I must admit it crossed my mind more than once during my stay. But I could not bring myself to go AWOL, all I had was one more month to go and I would be leaving Vietnam. I also did not want to bring any shame on my family. Our family had fought in every war this country had and they would not have understood. I boarded the plane.

I was terribly depressed returning, I landed at Đà Nẵng and stayed overnight in some barracks by the air strip. Grand Funk blared from a tape player. I couldn’t sleep that night, anticipating my return. Even getting away for a week didn’t stop me from constantly wondering how everyone in my unit was doing, or if everybody was OK. I caught a flight on a shuttle to Phu Bai on a C-130 in the morning.

To my surprise, my company was on stand-down when I got to the rear, and everyone was eager to hear about my R&R, and I wanted to hear what had happened in my absence.

R&R was only one week, but you have to understand what the bond is between combat veterans – it’s closer than family. There was bad news. SSG Bowels was killed in an accident with a grenade. The way I heard it, there was movement to the front (a small deer had tripped a fare) and SSG Bowels threw a grenade which bounced back off a tree mortally wounding him.

I took this hard, Bowels and I had seen a lot of action and I had a lot of respect for his ability. He was a good soldier and had what it takes to make First Sergeant; he was a career man and a good black soldier. He would no doubt have risen to the top ranks.

After getting all the info and seeing everyone the I’m Back novelty wore off and I realized exactly where I was. I began to get “Short Timers Fever” -- in other words, I began dwelling on the fact I was going to survive this thing. I hadn’t even let myself think about returning home before this. Returning home was going to be a fact and something I had not let myself mentally prepare for. As I looked at the men, I saw many new faces and suddenly realized I was an ‘ole timer.’ I began thinking about my own mortality. I had seen it many times before, the person who is short gets withdrawn, sullen and depressed, thinking about actually returning home. I had said I would never let it bother me yet here I was.

After a three day stand-down, orders came down we were getting a new LT and we were going back in the A Shau Valley -- bad news. Not only were we going back in the Lion’s Den, but we would be doing so with a new and untested LT I became more apprehensive.

As we were getting ready to board the helicopters the new LT came around and introduced himself to the men. I noticed right away he didn’t seem too sure of himself, but I just shrugged it off as him being new. We would be operating in platoon-size recon elements of around 28 men.

The serious side took over as we combat-assaulted back into the A Shau. After we successfully landing on the LZ we quickly moved off the LZ for concealment and to avoid any mortar attack. I was the senior man in the field and after we found a nice place to position the gun, the LT approached me after we had set up.

“You are the senior man, right, McCormick?”

“Yes sir,” I replied, “Less than a month to go, this should be my last operation, sir.”

“Well I am going to need your help; I don’t really know what I am doing,” the LT said matter-of-factly.

“No problem sir, training has a way of asserting itself when the going gets tough, you will be alright,” I said.

“I don’t think you understand,” the LT replied, “I am not trained to be an infantry officer, I was trained as an engineer ... there was some kind of mix-up with my orders and I got sent to the wrong unit.”

“What? You are kidding?” I said in astonishment, “You can’t be serious -- you don’t have any infantry training at all, sir?”

“We are just going to have to make the best of a bad situation,” the LT said, “It will be just for this two-weeks operation. I am counting on your help.”

The wheels began to turn in my head; all of a sudden I was thrust into a command situation. I was E-1 after being busted twice (once for a foray into Hue during a stand down).

“What should we do?” the LT asked. “I would appreciate it if you would keep this under your hat.”

“I can’t do that sir. These men have a right to know the situation,” I said.
“Sir, the NVA constantly have trail-watchers monitoring our movements. What we have to do is avoid contact and hide for the duration of this mission; we can’t afford to be in a combat situation with your experience. My suggestion to you, Sir, is to call in fake plots, and we go and hide.”

“I will do anything you guys tell me to,” replied the LT.

We assembled the men and the LT told them what the situation was. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone was looking at their shoes.

I said we should have a democratic vote on what to do, and I repeated my plan for the unit to avoid any contact. Not everyone was in agreement due to the fact that by calling in fake plots, you run the risk of being hit by your own artillery, but most agreed with my idea. We would get off the trail, hide in the day, and move at night. Everyone accepted the plan.

Things went well for the most part of the mission, then on the day before we were to move back to the LZ where we were inserted the LT decided to try his skill at calling in artillery, he had been watching the RTO, Peters, and felt confident to call it in. Unknown to me Peters let the LT try.

I was laying down relaxing, wishing I was on that freedom bird when I heard the spotter round go off directly over our position, all of a sudden I heard this loud noise: woomph ... woomph ... woomph -- it was the canister from the white phosphorous spotter round as it tumbled to the ground. It missed hitting me by a few feet as it crashed and against a tree.

The next radio message would have been a “Fire for Effect;” which would have placed the rounds directly spotted over our position.

“Hold your fire!” I hollered. “You almost killed me with that canister!”

It took me a minute to regain my composure and realize I was talking to a superior officer. Peters never let him try to call a fire mission in again.

Our “mission” was uneventful, and we were air lifted to provide bunker security on FSB Bastogne. It was late September and the season of the northern monsoon was just beginning. The northern the monsoon lasts from October until April, and it rains everyday, constantly. You would be lucky to see the sun briefly once a week, which hampered combat operations on both sides.

After we got to FSB Bastogne we got an infantry LT and the engineer went to wherever engineers go. I have often thought about what happened to him and if he remembers his operation with B. Co.

I ended up having another mission in the field into the A Shau to provide bunker security for an artillery base supporting the ARVYN 1st division. After that mission I provided security on TOC radio relay station Checkmate. Then I got the orders that I was to go to the rear for processing for DEROS (leaving).

I was a member of a daily detachment that descended Checkmate. As we started down the hill I realized that I didn’t have a weapon. A great burden was lifted off my shoulders.

I had finished my tour, now the biggest challenge was to go home to my family and try and put all this in the past.