A Young Man Goes to War by George Kalergis

Posted on January 17, 2018

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This  story is published in it’s entirety at http://www.booksie.com.    You can go there to read the full story from beginning to end.  This portion has to do with a Brave Forward Observer and great pilots from Charlie Troop 1/9th Cavalry. It is presented here with the express permission of George Kalergis. I pick up the story after OCS and assignment to Vietnam.

THE JEEP SHOWS UP

Finally after an hour, which seemed much longer, a jeep with a young PFC driver and another new lieutenant rolled up. “At least he has a rifle lying on the floor of the jeep next to him,” I whispered to Shack as we jumped on board.

I wanted to ask the driver why things were so casual and if there was any danger of enemy contact here at the base camp, but I did not want to appear “the fool”. It was one thing to have someone suspect you were an ignorant newbie, but quite another to open your mouth and prove it.

We jumped on board, the bored driver lazily saluted and said ….. “Welcome to Nam Sirs, I’m supposed to take you straight to ‘personnel’ so you can pick up orders for your new job positions.” He does not seem apprehensive or scared at all.

Soon we arrived at an area of Quonset style, air conditioned metal buildings. The driver pulled the jeep up to one of them, said he would wait and leaned back in his seat for a snooze.  I jumped out with the other two and went inside. We returned quickly with our new orders. The driver sat up, stretched, spun the wheel, popped the clutch, the tires spit a little dust and we were off to the rear headquarters locations of our new units. There, the next day, we would pick up our field gear and we were relieved to find out, our M-16 rifles.

“Well, we haven’t been shot yet”, I half-jokingly said to Shack. “We only have 364 more days to go. What units did you guys get?”

Shack said, “I got attached as a Forward Observer (FO) to B Company 5th of the 7th.
The other lieutenant said, “Yeah, I got the same FO job with C Company. What did you get?”
It seems like 2nd LT in the field artillery and FO is synonymous.

“I got attached as FO to the 1st of the 9th Armed Helicopter Squadron,” I replied. The driver straightened up quickly, made a loud whistle and said, “OH MANNNNN! I hope your Life Insurance is paid up sir. They are crazy bastards over in the 1st of the 9th. They are the best, bad ass helicopter pilots in Nam. With 88 helicopters they kill half the enemy of the entire division.
They get shot up all the frigging time, take a lot of casualties and go through helicopters and men real quick. Matter of fact, the last two newbies I picked up who were assigned to them, both were shot down and killed within the first couple months.”

I muttered to Shack ….. “It’s our lucky day and this certainly isn’t frigging Kansas.”
I didn’t tell Shack, but I had been kind of secretly hoping there might be an opening for Club Officer or something like that there in the base camp. No such luck it seemed.
Well, I said to Shack …… “What happens next?”

THIS TIME IT’S FOR REAL

After several days of orientation classes for new people “in country” and drawing all our field gear from supply, we were ready to leave the security of the big base camp in the rear and head out to our forward positions on the battlefield.  We sat in the low makeshift barracks with thatched roofs in the rear base camp, cleaning our rifles and preparing to move out the next day. We could hear some kind of critters rustling around in the straw roof. Shack said …. “Only 350 days to go, we’re getting short”.

We had figured out by now that there was no enemy near the big base camp. We may as well have been at Ft Sill, Oklahoma in the field, except that here, there were a lot more helicopters. I said …. “Yup, vacation is over; time to get to where the real action is, I guess?”  As we sat there I asked Shack, “I wonder what those scurrying sounds overhead are?”  Shack said ….. “I heard it was mice in the grass of the roof, but sometimes snakes were up there looking for their dinner. You know, the first sergeant told me about a new guy a couple months ago who was deathly afraid of snakes. He fell asleep and suddenly woke up in this very hooch with a long dead weight on his chest” “Yeah, and then what happened?” “He said the guy lay there terrified, afraid to move, wondering what to do for a minute. Then, he very slowly reached his arm toward the weight, quickly grabbed it and with all his might threw it as far as he could from the bed.” “Shit Shack, what happened, did he get bit?” “Nah, it turned out his arm had fallen asleep. He grabbed it thinking it was a snake and when he tried to throw it off, he ended up throwing himself off the bunk and breaking his arm. He ended up in the hospital and got to go home early.” “Oh BS Shack, that’s not a true story.” “First Sergeant said it was.” I was still for a moment and then told Shack, “Hmmm I hope my arm doesn’t fall asleep tonight. You think a broken arm hurts much?” “You’re an idiot Greek, go to sleep.” I was just getting sleepy, when Shack said, “Good night Greek, last tag.” “You’re an asshole Shack, good night.” They were good friends.

Too soon it was morning. Neither of us had been lucky enough to get a broken arm during the night, so we headed to the Helicopter Pad for our ride to the front. After a 30 minute flight over jungle covered mountains and a lot of rice paddies, the pilot put down on LZ Pony in the middle of the Bong Song Plain.
Pony was a typical Fire Base in the First Cavalry Area of Operations. (AO) It consisted of the maneuver Battalion Tactical Operation Center (TOC), a 105MM Howitzer Battery, and a maneuver company that secured the perimeter.  It sat high on top of a large hill in the center of the Bong Song Plain. There were two other similar fire bases set out in a triangle arrangement some 10,000 meters equidistant from Pony.  positioned that way, they could provide artillery support for search & destroy missions throughout much of the Bong Song Plain and An Lao Valley.

This allowed each of the three maneuver companies’ to patrol around the area of the triangle and also allowed the fire bases to support each other with their 105MM artillery if they were attacked. Pony was a little bigger than most fire bases because it was also the home of the 1st of the 9th Armed Helicopter Recon Troop.

They had 88 helicopters there at Pony. These 88 helicopters were comprised of the Guns Ships, (“red teams”), the H-13 Observation Helicopters (“white teams”) and the Huey Helicopters. (“blue teams”) The blue team helicopters carried the standby platoon size reaction forces whose mission was to follow up on any action developed by the other two teams. They were very busy and none of them started reading any long books.

Shack and I jumped out, gave each other a quick slap on the back said …… “Good luck buddy,” and we were off to our individual destinies.

Shack was moving out on a Search & Destroy mission with Bravo Company late that afternoon and a lieutenant from the 1st of the 9th Armed Helicopter Recon Troop was there to greet me and escort me to my new unit.  “Here is the tent you will be sleeping in, go ahead and move your gear in and I’ll see you at the evening briefing. We’ll hear a review of the action today and the plan for tomorrow. We had some contact today and I heard one helicopter was hit.”

THE 1st OF THE 9th AIR CAVALRY SQUADRON

“The 1st of the 9th Air Cavalry Squadron was the eyes and ears of the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. They were called on to find the enemy day in and day out, good weather or bad. Its’ 88 helicopters participated in 13 Vietnam campaigns and accounted for over half of the enemy killed by the entire division. By the end of the war four of its’ members had been awarded the Medal of Honor.”

The B Model, UH-1 (Huey), Helicopter Gun Ship was a flying arsenal. It sat on the dirt runway at LZ Pony in the middle of the Bong Song Plain like a giant, sleeping, bird of prey. Painted on each side of the front of the fuselage were large, black “Skull & Crossbones” with the inscription, “The Grim Reaper”. Sticking out from the front, like a large proboscis, was an ominous looking 40mm automatic grenade launcher. Pods of sixteen deadly 2.75MM rockets hung just below the two canvas seats where the two door gunners manned their M-60, 7.62MM machine guns.

The M-60s were suspended from “Bungee Cords” in the open doors so we could lean out of the helicopter and shoot almost anywhere.  I had never fired a machine gun, so the other door gunner was quickly showing me its’ operation. Hell, I thought, This is the first time I have ever been on a helicopter gun ship!
I had carefully secured my maps and radio on the canvas seat next to me, ready for use to call for air strikes or supporting artillery.

I sat on the canvas seat, waiting to take off. My M-60 machine gun was hanging in front of me and I had a large wooden box filled with hundreds of rounds of ammunition at my feet.  I felt like I did the first time on a roller coaster as the car clickety clacked to the top of the first big hill. My heart was trying to jump out of my frigging chest as I wondered what I would experience on the other side. Holy shit, this is the real frigging thing and we will soon be flying into combat. I’m scared, but damn excited.

Lieutenant Colonel Simpson, the 1st of the 9th Squadron Commander had introduced me to the other officers the night before in the evening briefing. Simpson was a “Top Gun” type pilot, one of the best of the best. He was tall, fit, confident and a great leader. If they did a Top Gun movie for helicopter gun ship pilots, he would have been cast in the lead role without hesitation. Any pilot that flew with the 1st of the 9th fit that mold. He said …… “This is Lt Kalergis, our new forward observer. Charlie troop, he will be flying with you tomorrow taking the place of a door gunner with one of your red teams and will be available to call in artillery and air strikes.” “Welcome to Nam Kalergis. Do you have your radio and maps ready for tomorrow?” “Yes sir, I’m ready.”

“Charlie, you are to do a first light recon in the central section of the An Lao Valley. As you know, the entire valley is a ‘Free Fire Zone’. All the villagers have been evacuated and there has been a lot of enemy movement recently here,” Simpson points to the map. I did not know it, but the VC would also have quite a welcome for me. My first week would prove to be a dangerous one.

Now, I was on board the “chase ship” of the Hunter-Killer red team. We were following just behind and above the lead helicopter. It was perfect flying weather as we flew at tree top level into the free fire zone of the An Lao Valley. I had fired only three artillery “practice missions” six months previously at Ft Sill, so I had rehearsed in my tent, calling in practice missions, one after the other. I thought I had it down pretty good. I hoped to hell I did.

As I looked out, I couldn’t help but think,  I was enjoying the low level ride up the valley. If my hair had still been long, it would have been whipping from the wind coming through the open doors. As I looked out, I couldn’t help but think, This deserted jungle valley looks beautiful and peaceful down there.

Towering high above us on both sides were rugged mountains covered with lush, green, jungle. We were flying below and between them with a bright blue sky high above. A crystal clear river wound up the center of the valley. We followed it, flying so low that I could make out fish in the water. I wonder what kind they are.

It looked as if the valley might still have inhabitants that had missed the evacuation; the rice paddies still looked neat and well cultivated. They were terraced at successive heights right up to the edge of the mountains, efficiently using every possible piece of terrain to grow food.

We searched for an hour without seeing anyone in the burned out, deserted villages that were scattered on rises between the rice paddies. It was a beautiful valley and a great day to be alive, but it would not be peaceful for long.

Suddenly, the lead ship spotted a squad of VC soldiers running in a line up a jungle trail at the base of the mountain. The pilot said …… “Fighter red, rolling in hot.”

Both gunships pounced, one after the other, firing rapid streams of 40 MM grenades, like giant birds of prey spitting death from their beaks. The exploding 40MM grenades followed the fleeing Viet Cong up the trail. As the VC ran, looking back over their shoulders, the grenades quickly caught them, exploding right on top of them. Several fell violently on the trail like a giant invisible hand had knocked them down. I could see blood where they had been hit. The other door gunner was firing his machine gun at them, so I did the same. To my surprise, the pilot hollered at me over the intercom ……. Kalergis, don’t fire. There are friendly soldiers close by on the ground. You don’t have enough experience firing the machine gun yet.” No shit, it’s the first time I ever fired a frigging machine gun. “I’ll tell you when to fire Kalergis. Okay, you got it?” “Okay, I GOT IT!”

A short time later, further up the valley, while my heart was trying to pound out of my chest, we spotted a middle aged man in khaki shorts and shirt. He was working alone in a dry rice paddy just outside a small village that seemed to be deserted. He seemed nervous and was looking up frequently. I was hyper alert and no longer admiring the scenery. I had never had such an adrenalin rush. The lead chopper swept in and landed near the lone man in the rice paddy. I watched as their door gunner jumped out with his pistol and ran to take him prisoner. We planned to take him back for interrogation.

Suddenly, I saw the dirt “jumping up” in the dry paddy around the chopper. It was strange because I could not hear any weapons firing over the noise of the helicopter.

Why the hell is the dirt jumping up all around the helicopter on the ground? I did not have to wonder long. There were Viet Cong firing automatic weapons from just 50 meters inside the village. I saw the door gunner fall face down in the rice paddy, and lie motionless. I was sure he was hit. The chopper on the ground leapt into the air like a giant bird clawing for altitude, their door gunner left face down in the paddy. My pilot said urgently over the intercom, “Fighter Red, rolling in hot!”

In we went for a rocket run. It was mass confusion. The rockets fired like giant 4th of July Roman Candles going off right underneath me. Sparks were flying everywhere, the other door gunner was firing his M-60, but I was not firing mine. The pilot yelled at me on the intercom,  “Why aren’t you shooting?” “You just told me not to.” “Shoot goddamnit!” “What the hell, I wish he would make up his fucking mind”, I muttered.

Right over the village, I started firing my machine gun. As we made a sharp left turn for another rocket run, WHAM, something hit the helicopter! I felt like someone had just punched me in the head. Looking down at the floor of the helicopter, I saw a jagged hole where a bullet had entered right by my boot and then exited so close to my head that the concussion dazed me.

After we made several more gun runs, the “blue team” reaction force arrived and air assaulted into the rice paddy. To my relief, the door gunner jumped up from the rice paddy, and ran to meet them. He had been “playing dead” the entire time and was rescued unscathed. I bet he needs to change his britches when he gets back, I thought.

Finally, the gun ships were running low on ammunition and the pilot said …. “Kalergis, put some artillery fire on the village.” I was already too pumped with adrenalin to be scared, never mind nervous. Shit, this is my first combat mission! I had been frantically reviewing the procedures the night before and evidently I was a quick learner.

I fired 200 rounds of 105MM artillery right on the edge of the village where the fire had come from. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I managed to adjust the rounds quickly on the bunker where the fire had been coming from. Seeing the bright red, incandescent flashes and black smoke inundating the village from hundreds of rounds of high explosive artillery rounds was unreal. It was more artillery than I had ever adjusted. Hell, it was more artillery than I had ever seen.

I even remembered to fire some “fuse delay”. Fuse delay rounds had a split second delay in detonation that enabled them to penetrate the overhead protection of bunkers before exploding inside. We would later learn that they had been very effective.

We were running low on fuel and the enemy seemed to have retreated, so the blues were withdrawn, and we headed back to the base.

That evening, LTC Simpson described his plan to return to the village the next day.
He started the briefing by saying ……. “Good job with that artillery today, Kalergis. I think our new forward observer is going to be a good one.”

Nobody thought the VC would be foolish enough to remain, but the commander was not about to take any chances. “Yes Sir, I will arrange for that,” I replied.

This is like a dream, but I feel pretty good about myself.

The next day, I jumped on board a “white team”, H-13 helicopter with a plexi-glass, bubble cockpit. (Like on Mash) The pilot, a tall, crew cut, captain who also looked like he came from the set of “Top Gun” welcomed me and we headed up the valley to shoot my second combat fire mission. The valley still looked peaceful and beautiful, but now I knew better.

After I fired the artillery preparation, the blue platoon would make its’ planned combat assault into the village. We flew directly to the village and I started firing. There didn’t seem to be any enemy remaining, but I kept up a good barrage of artillery anyway.

Hearing the loud ‘CRUNCHING SOUNDS’ of the explosions and seeing the mushroom bursts of black smoke and bright red incandescent bursts of flame from several hundred rounds of artillery was damn exciting. Once again, it was a hundred times more artillery than I had ever seen fired in training. Finally, the artillery battery radioed me ….. “We’re running low on ammunition. Unless you have a ‘live’ target, we have to stop firing.”

We could see the blues with their supporting gunships flying up the valley for the combat assault, so my pilot told me …….. “End the mission Kalergis. Let’s go down and see what your artillery did.”

As a “passenger”, I didn’t have much choice and down we went to telephone pole height. Suddenly a VC soldier with a rifle, jumped out of a spider hole right below us, and the captain said …….“SHOOT HIM!” I had an M-16 rifle in my lap. On full automatic, I shot at him and saw my tracers follow him into his hole. “I think I got him!” I told the pilot.

As I was trying to reload, another VC soldier jumped up and fired a burst of automatic fire point blank into our helicopter. I was stunned and confused. Shattered plexi-glass and blood was flying around the cockpit. I had blood on my arms, but wasn’t sure whose it was. I looked over and saw the pilot bleeding. It sounded like he was trying to ask, “How bad is it?” He did not sound good. He had blood on the front of his uniform, but I couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from.

“Damn captain! Do you feel dizzy? Are you are going to black out?” He replied, “No, I think I’m okay.” He did not sound okay, but he seemed to have the helicopter under control so I called the artillery back and urgently said, “Fire Mission”, grid 231 748 automatic weapons firing, direction gun target line, adjust fire OVER!” They repeated the fire mission back and asked,
“Is this a live target?” “Hell yes, we’ve been hit and my frigging pilot is bleeding. Is that ‘live’ enough for you?”

The artillery battery which had been reluctant to keep firing just a few minutes before, now had the live target they wanted and quickly started shooting again.

I didn’t have time to be scared, but my knee was “jumping up and down” and would not frigging stop. I was pumped so full of adrenalin I could barely breathe. I still had time to mutter to myself ….. “Shit, so far so good. At least I remembered how to call the frigging mission in.”

We stayed over the village for another thirty minutes firing 500 more rounds of artillery. I kept asking … “Captain, are you feeling dizzy?” Finally he replied, “Okay Kalergis I’m getting a little weak.” His voice sounded strange and I could barely understand what he was saying.
“Shit, I cannot fly this thing,” I told him, “we better head back,” to which he reluctantly agreed.

The 1st of the 9th pilots really are frigging crazy! As soon as I fired the last round of artillery, the blue team swept in for their planned assault. They met little resistance and soon found there had been a VC “sapper platoon” in the village, commanded by a woman major. One of the “fuse delay” rounds had scored a direct hit on her bunker. It had penetrated the overhead cover and exploded inside, killing them all. The secondary explosions we had seen were from caches of stored dynamite. Not bad for my second combat fire mission.

With the pilot still bleeding, we urgently started back. For the entire trip, I kept asking anxiously, “How do you feel?” Sometimes he would answer and sometimes he would not. He had a grim look on his face as he concentrated on keeping the damaged helicopter flying. Finally, he managed to touch down back at LZ Pony.

“Damn good landing sir,” I said with relief, as the medics hurried him off.
“Good job Kalergis,” I heard him try to say. I learned the next day he passed out a short time later.

There was glass from the shattered cockpit in his throat and vocal cords. He was rushed to the hospital where he recovered and returned several months later to fly again.

As I was leaving the landing strip, I walked by a helicopter that was just landing. To my surprise, I heard somebody call my name. Looking over, I saw a couple of my former officer candidate classmates just arriving in country and disembarking from the helicopter. They stared in amazement at my blood splattered uniform,

One of them said …. “George, what the hell happened?” I answered in what I hoped was a calm voice, “Not much fellas, just another day in Nam.

ARTILLERY SPEED AND ACCURACY

One month after arriving in country, a forward observer was killed in Alpha Company, 5th of the 7th and I was told I was leaving the 1st of the 9th to replace him.
It had been an honor to serve with those incredibly, brave and skilled pilots and their crews. For the month I flew with them, we flew over the entire division area of operation (AO) and I had the opportunity to call for fire from a cross section of all the artillery units in the division. As a result, I had a unique opportunity to compare the speed and accuracy of them all.