LZ Colt by 1LT George Kalargis

Posted on January 27, 2019

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The Battle For LZ Colt
  It is early October-1967, and the First Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) is conducting “Search & Destroy” operations against the Viet Cong (VC) in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The soldiers of the 3rd Brigade are finishing up their part of that mission in the An-Lao Valley. After months of combat operations, they have been unable to “win the hearts and minds” of the populace, or to defeat the Viet Cong to gain control of the valley. As a last resort, it is declared a free fire zone and a “scorched earth” campaign executed. George (Greek) Kalergis, a lanky, once good hearted, Lieutenant Forward Observer, (FO) attached to A Company 5th of the 7th ,watches as soldiers torch the huts in the valley. He sees the dry grass huts flame up quickly, a brilliant, searing red, crackling, and popping inferno, as the memories of generations, flicker into the heavens. From the light hearted, fun times, to the somber moments of their lives, generations of memories, all become just so much hot air, going up in smoke. Huge water buffalo are shot, but refuse to go down, or die quickly from the small caliber M-16 bullets. They just stand there staring at their killers, mournfully, mooing for a time, until they finally succumb to the dozens of lead pellets making their insides leak, and collapse to rot in the rice paddy. Some days it is humans the soldiers hunt, but today it is chickens and barn animals, large and small, all butchered, and left to rot in the now demolished rice paddies. The smell of violent death permeates the humid jungle air to settle into the soldiers’ helmets, boots, hair, and clothing. Some still smell death in their dreams, decades later. Any food or tools, whatever the Viet Cong in the valley might use, are forcibly removed, or destroyed. The long-time, civilian residents of the valley are marched, “re-located”, from their centuries old, pristine and beautiful valley home, now in ruins. The shit running down the pants of a frightened old man, the piss of young children, too terror stricken to scream, and the salty, snot smell of women heaving with sobs for the loss of the world as they know it, assault the soldiers’ senses. Bewildered, the valleys inhabitants put one foot in front of the other, robbed of the security of their homes, and livelihoods. They feel the ties that bound them to their village, are completely unraveling, and although still alive, look like walking dead.
Image result for an lao valley images              Image result for an lao valley vietnam burning huts
They are the lucky ones; anyone now left in the valley, and the surrounding jungle, is fair game, and can be shot on sight. “Kill anything that moves in the valley” … is the new order of the day.
 Lt Kalergis’ earlier philosophy, that he was fighting for “freedom”, and to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people, has long been shattered. He is reconsidering his view, however it is much too late, and he must continue to follow his orders for a year. Winning the war is not really his priority; doing his desperate best to stay alive is. He had better tend to his fighting business, or his legs and boots will soon be sticking out from his poncho, waiting for a body bag, as many of his comrades before him. Not ever far from his mind, and emotions, is his desire to make his father, an Army General, proud of him. He did not have any success in doing that, doing poorly in college. Getting drafted, as a result, going to Officer Candidate School (OCS), and becoming a Second Lieutenant, is an accomplishment that helps with his self-esteem, and his unfulfilled desire to make his father proud of him. He had his doubts about the war before coming to Nam, but he trusted the judgement of older and wiser military and civilian leadership’, and he wanted to make his father proud. His refusing to go to war, could have been the end of his fathers’ military career. Now, reality has hit home, as he is thrust into the horrendous caldron of combat, with its violence, and heartless, cold inhumanity of man to man. He and many others no longer have a choice. They are wired, scared, confused, and unhappy, mixed bags of emotions and trauma. Greeks sense of right and wrong, like a rubber band, stretched too far, has snapped, and he doubts it will ever return to normal. He is trapped in a nightmare, and wonders if he will ever recover. He will one day think, “How can any field soldier return home without being in the reptilian clutches of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Syndrome.” His humanity is leaving him, more quickly now, like the smoke rising from the villages they are burning. Many of his comrades will commit suicide on their return to the “world”.  The politicians back in that “world” are still encouraging them to win the “hearts and minds”, but few soldiers, are buying that platitude any longer. The foot soldiers in the jungles, and rice paddies know better, “Body Count”, is the real measure of success. They are relentlessly pressured to deliver that, way or another. No questions asked! Sometimes, 20 KIA are reported, with only 2 weapons found. The ratio of the enemy soldiers’ casualties to friendly KIA, is absurdly reported to be 40 to 1. By God, we are winning the war!
  Now, the 3rd Brigade receives another mission. They will move to I Corp, the northern most part of South Vietnam, where as in the An-Lao, jungle covered mountains, surround miles of rice paddies. Unlike the An-Lao in the Central Highlands, this larger valley, is populated with many more enemy. There are at least six companies of hardened VC guerrillas, along with 5,000 regular, well-equipped soldiers of the 3rd NVA Regiment, that control the valley. The regiment is under the command and control of the NVA Second Division, hidden somewhere in the mountainous jungle terrain to the north. The new mission of the 3rd Brigade is to move to the Que Son, engage and defeat the 3rd NVA Regiment, and return control of the valley to the South Vietnamese government.
          Image result for que son valley vietnam    Image result for que son valley vietnam   Image result for que son valley vietnam
                                                                               The Move
 
  Getting to I Corp, is a tremendous challenge. Charlie Battery, 1/21st artillery battalion, is preparing for its’ mission, to provide direct artillery support to the Brigades maneuver elements. They are loading six 105 MM Howitzers, 80 men, ammunition, and equipment into Caribou, fixed wing aircraft, for the first leg of that journey. As soon as Lt. George Kalergis, the Fire Direction Officer (Greek), Lt. Raymond Shackelford, the Executive Officer (Shack), and the Battery Commander, Captain Charles Haines (Chuck), have finished loading their men and equipment into the stubby, work horse, aircraft, Greek says, “How the hell are we going to take off from this piece of crap, dirt runway?” He soon finds out, as the pilot revs the engines up to full throttle, and with a deafening, clattering roar, the Caribou aircraft leaps forward, as it shakes and rattles, faster, and faster, down the short runway. Inside the metal belly of the beast, holding on for dear life, it is like a giant carnival ride, as the triumvirate, cursing like sailors, violently bounce and bump against each other. Just as Lt Kalergis is thinking, “Holy f**k, the hell with science, this aint gonna work!”, the specially engineered, “short take off” aircraft, now at the very end of the runway, gives a final, bone jarring jolt, to lurch into the air like a crippled duck. It just clears the jungle’s edge, several trees are now missing their top few branches, and they are stumbling on their way to the Que Son Valley.
  Arriving and deplaning at a small airstrip, not far from our final-destination, Charlie Battery soldiers wait to board eight, large, twin engine, Chinook helicopters that will transport them on, to their new home, LZ Colt. Soon, they board the giant birds, and six of them, skillfully hovering just meters off the ground, while slings are attached beneath the helicopter to the six, 105-MM howitzers and their basic load of artillery rounds. That accomplished, they are off to their destiny. It is the afternoon, of 8, October 1967, as Greek peers down at the rice paddies rushing by below. He can see seven other giant helicopters, flying in a line, six with Howitzers and Ammo, slung beneath them. With the howitzers dangling from long, sturdy canvas straps trailing beneath them, they look like a flock of giant Pelicans flying, one in front of the other, with long fishlines and lures, swinging along below them.
Image result for chinook with 105 mm howitzer slung below                Image result for chinook with 105 mm howitzer slung below      Image result for group of chinooks with 105 mm howitzer slung below
                                                                                   Arriving At Colt
 
Soon enough, they land at LZ Colt. It is a hub-bub of frantically organized activity. Taxi Cabs, wildly honking their horns at each other, picking up passengers from Grand Central Station at rush hour, is a calm event compared to the helicopters, arriving, swiftly unloading, and departing.  Not just Charlie Battery, but also the 5th of the 7th Battalion Headquarters, Tactical Operations Center (TOC), and one company of 5th of the 7th troopers, for perimeter security. Troopers jump and fall from the choppers into the dangerous footing, a muddy, slippery, disastrous, mess. Helicopter blades, spinning like mad whirling dervishes, in the Monsoon rain, sling sheets of water and mud over everything. They remind Greek of some hyper, surrealistic painters, sloshing paint onto a giant canvas. Troopers slip, and slide around, with the wind and rain stinging their faces. The weather makes everything they try to accomplish, many times more difficult than normal. Greek wonders, as he often does, “Am I dreaming? How the hell did I get in this never-ending dramatic, nightmare?”
                                                         First Of The Ninth Hunter Killer Teams
 
  In periods when the rain eases, Greek sees Huey Gunships of the 1st of the 9th  Recon Troop, patrolling the edges of the jungle that surround his new, low-lying position. These, “Red” Hunter-Killer teams with their “Blue” reaction platoons, account for half the enemy killed in action, (KIA) for the entire First Cavalry Division. Their body count is real, much more confirmed than some. They boast many highly decorated members, including four pilots awarded, “The Medal of Honor”. There is a thin line separating brave, and crazy. The 1st of the 9th pilots and soldiers, walked both sides daily.
 (Lt Kalergis walked it with them, for his first month in country, but that is a different story in this anthology, entitled “A Helicopter Ride”)
                          Image result for huey gunships nam   Image result for huey gunships nam
       Huey Gunships with 2.75 Rockets, 40 MM grenade launchers & 2 M-60 Machine Guns.
                                                    Tactical Situation LZ Colt
  Rice paddies surround each side of the slight rise, a mere “Bump” in the earth, that is becoming LZ Colt. The guns for Charlie Battery cannot be placed in the usual manner, a minimum of one hundred meters above the surrounding terrain. Instead, they are located at ground level, just a little more than the elevation of the surrounding Rice Paddies. Extending out from Colt, 700 to 1,000 meters, they go right to the edge of the surrounding jungle. Normally, fire bases are set on the tops of hills to make their defenses more effective. This time, there are no positions available, that have the necessary, high hill top, terrain features adequate to enable the interlocking fires crucial to the Brigades operations. The other two brigade fire bases are located on the tops of high hills. LZ Colt must settle for sitting smack dab, in the center of hundreds of meters of open rice paddy! The mission demands it, but they might as well have, red, bullseyes painted on their backs.
  Knowing Colts’ unusual vulnerability, like alert birds of prey, the heavily armed 1st of the 9th gunships patrol around Colt at tree top level, ready to pounce on any possible enemy “prey” hidden in the tree line. They will find a lot of prey throughout the entire valley.
 Deadly prey, that unfortunately can shoot back.   With 50 caliber machine guns, the NVA soldiers will shoot down more than a few of the Huey Gunships and their crews over the next couple months.  The 1st of the 9th  , troopers and pilots are crazy, brave, mother fuckers!  Charlie Battery has been through this LZ occupation drill dozens of times, and they are damn good at it. This time, it is made many times more difficult, by the mud, wind, and rain. They will also soon find, to their deep concern, lack of adequate helicopter logistics support is also a big problem. While Charlie Battery is settling in, LTC Wickham’s, Tactical Operations Center, is also being situated, right out in the open. LZ Colt does not have nearly the normal amount of defensive Concertina wire, trip flares and Claymore mines, they are accustomed to. Uncharacteristically, placed out in the open, on a poorly equipped, low lying bump in the earth, they are at the mercy of the enemy. They are both, “sitting ducks”, vulnerable as new born babies, in the cold, uncaring rain. LTC Wickham, the 5th of the 7th Battalion Commander, is beside himself, and damn near insubordinate, as he angrily objects the positioning to Col. Mckenna, the Brigade Commander. He is told, “The position is vital to the Brigades operation, and you will just have to make it work.” Mckenna stressed the need for speed, to gain the element of surprise over the enemy. He promised logistical support, and when it did not come, the next day, advised that the soldiers on Colt needed to, “Suck it up, and improvise”.  Greek later hears LTC Wickhams’ radio operator telling his buddy, “I thought McKenna was going to fire the old man, the way they were going at it.” The commander, and all of us had no choice, but to, “suck it up”!
  Meanwhile, the big question in Greeks mind about all this, is “Exactly who the f**k is going to get the frigging surprise, us or them?” He had an ominous feeling who it might be. The terrible weather, and helicopter maintenance problems continue, and even on the 2nd day of occupation, Colt still does not have its’ normal complement of equipment required for the defense of a new position, never mind one as open and vulnerable as Colt. Without a doubt, the officers on the fire base agree, this is the worst position any of them have ever experienced. Instead of the normal, triple strands of Concertina wire, stacked high around the perimeter, there is only enough for a single strand. Chuck, George and Shack, are aghast, that even the day following the initial occupation, we still had far fewer than normal, rolls of Concertina Wire, sand bags, trip flares, and Claymore mines. Charlie Battery and the 5th of the 7th Battalion TOC are “prime targets”, nakedly vulnerable, right in the center of an open rice paddy. The Charlie Battery’ officers and men, are growing increasingly apprehensive. They know the valley is home to 5,000, regular NVA soldiers that control the jungle surrounding the LZ.
                                                            Citizens of The Que Son Valley
 
  Unlike some of the citizens back in the Central Highlands, most of the inhabitants of the Que Son valley, do not buy into the American mantra, “Win the hearts and minds of the people”. To them, it was merely American  “propaganda”. The slogan may have had some moderate success back in the more pacified, Central Highlands. Here however, there were no friendly and secure villages, filled with Sin-City, Business-Girls, barber shops, souvenir stands, or food and drink establishments run by enterprising, friendly, local Vietnamese. Instead, these villages are filled with Vietnamese citizens who are fervent Viet Cong sympathizers. Most regard us only as “round eyed” invaders. Because, they have no wish to be “liberated”, higher headquarters is seriously considering making it a “free fire” zone, just as they did with the An-Lao Valley. Greek thinks, “If the majority of the citizens don’t want us here, why are we fighting in the middle of this civil war.” Greek sadly remembers, as an FO in the free fire zone of the An-Lao, being sick at heart, watching soldiers laugh, because it took them so many   M-16 bullets, to bring down the huge Water Buffalo. He told his RTO, Danny Garrity, at the time, “I bet they wouldn’t be laughing if someone was shooting their cattle on the ranch back home!” If the natives don’t want to be liberated, we will just obliterate them and their homes, seemed the policy when we are unable to win their “Hearts & Minds”. “So much for that f***ing slogan, we are becoming inhuman monsters with our actions here!” Greek solemnly thought, as he had watched hundreds of grim-faced citizens, marched from the An-Lao valley, to be “relocated” from their generations’ old homes.  Also, unlike the An-Lao, staged throughout this valley, are huge caches of money, food, military equipment, weapons and ammunition, readily available for use by six companies of hardened Viet Cong guerillas, and 5,000, regular regimental soldiers.
The “war games” of the Central Highlands, that the brigade is accustomed to, with snipers, home-made booby traps, a few regular NVA, and occasional skirmishes, with local Viet Cong guerrillas, are over.   The Greek wasn’t sure the General, and his tacticians, who had so hastily located them here, fully understand the increased risk we are facing. He had learned from his earlier Forward Observer (FO) duties, conducting “Search & Destroy” operations in the jungle and rice paddies with Alpha Company, of the 5th of the 7th,   in the Central Highlands, that the reality of the situation on the ground, was not always what was hoped for, or understood, by the planners looking at their maps. As an FO on the ground, he once heard, from the command and control helicopter, high above, “Why are you moving so slow? That Elephant Grass does not look that bad from up here?” Just moments later, a soldier has his foot blown up from a booby trap, set in the tall grass. Screaming, until the Morphine kicked in, he was taken out by medivac. Greek could not tell his bloody boot from his foot, and wondered, “How in the hell are the doctors going to get his boot off? F**k the commander in his chopper, I’m going to move slowly and carefully. I don’t want to be screaming with my foot shredded, bloodily melded, with my boot.”       From then on, they all moved even more slowly, taking each step very, very carefully in the waist high grass. Nightmares, of that bloody boot, will continue to haunt Greek, decades later. He thought at the time, “Moving through this booby trapped, high grass is kind of like, putting one foot gingerly in front of the other, trying to get into the freezing cold ocean, back home at Seabrook beach, New Hampshire.”The VC had succeeded in stopping the progress of A Company. “I guess Elephant Grass doesn’t grow on maps?”, Greek had mumbled to himself.   Combat is deadly dangerous, and he, and A company, had that danger multiplied at times, by overly ambitious, senior planners.
                                                             Body Count & F***ing Politicians
The tacticians, seemed not to always listen to the commanders on the ground. After all, they were fallible humans, under the great stress of combat, like the rest of us. They were constantly pressured by the First Air Cavalry Division chain of command to defeat the enemy, and report larger numbers of “body count”, (never enough it seemed), dead enemy. Reports of KIA that run the chain of command, up through higher Headquarters, eventually are seen in the offices of the Pentagon and White House, where they are touted as evidence we were winning. The absurdity of reporting millions of dead NVA, compared to tens of thousands of ours, seemed not to occur to them. In any event, they were hearing what they hoped to hear, and believed what they wanted to believe. Pressure for results, unfortunately, can results in grave errors. Errors that causes black sedans, with dress uniformed officers, briefcases filled with medals, to drive up to homes back in, “anywhere”, USA, to inform loved ones, “I’m very sorry to have to inform you that your son has been killed in Vietnam.” Now their boys are coming home in a flag draped casket, to be met by sobbing loved ones, a scene that is horrifically repeated tens of thousands of times, over the ten-year period of the war. It was a sad and turbulent era, with many young people demonstrating against the unpopular war. Although some may disagree with Greek, in retrospect, the student demonstrations were more than justified, and necessary, to help end ten years of a pointless war. He would sometimes think, “If ten years does not make a difference, will twenty?” What pains and discourages him even more, is the disdain and disapproval shown by the many people, who disparage, humiliate, and emotionally destroy the brave young soldiers, whose valor, and sacrifice are being so cruelly wasted. They are told they are fighting for American values, freedom and the democratic way of life. Young and unsophisticated in the ways of the world, Greek and the other soldiers, at least initially, believed they were fighting for a just cause. Egregiously lied to, they did not deserve to be spit on, and cursed when they arrived home. They just did what they had to do, in order to stay alive. Once in hell, there is no way back home for them.
They are forced to fight like Roman Gladiators of old to stay alive. Greek thinks, years later from a wiser and more experienced viewpoint, “SEATO and The Gulf of Tonkin were just excuses. Excuses, like ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ in Iraq. The blame needs to fall where it belongs, squarely on the shoulders of the political leadership, and the senior military doing their bidding.” (McNamara, Johnson & Westmoreland etc.) Their errant interpretations, use of treaties like SEATO, and misleading reporting of the Gulf of Tonkin were not justification for the millions claimed killed during the war. The language of that treaty did not include absolute mutual defense, and the Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin was used to deliberately provoke North Vietnam. Poor fucking excuses for a useless, expensive and “profitable” for some, war that killed millions and tragically impacted tens of millions of Vietnamese and American extended families. “When will we ever learn?” That foolhardy, ambitious, and errant leadership was criminally responsible then, as it is today, for the tragedy of wars with no real mission. Much more so, than the good intentioned protesters, or other scapegoats like Jane Fonda, and her tragically mistaken, ill planned, trip to Hanoi.
                                                                       Captain Trang
 
  None of that was of current concern to Chuck, Shack and Greek as they had very good reason for immediate worry. Their fears were justified, because while they scrambled to set up Colts defenses on the morning of the 9th of OCT., from the nearby concealment of the dense, jungle tree line, 700 meters away, Cpt. Trang and his NVA recon party, are closely observing them. Unlike most of the US soldiers he is fighting, Trang had volunteered to fight. He missed his fiancé, and life at home in Hanoi terribly, but is fiercely determined, willing to sacrifice, to bring about “Father”, Ho Chi Minhs’ dream, a united, and free Vietnam. Major Tran, who as a young man, had helped defeat the French decades before, is the 3rd NVA Regimental Operations Officer. He, and his senior officers, are passionately convinced their presence in South Vietnam, is the beginning of a grand tactical plan. One that would eventually drive out these new foreign invaders, just as they had defeated the French in almost this same location. They were completely dedicated to bringing peace, and prosperity to a re-unified Vietnam. In fact, the NVAs’, 2nd Division troop build-up, a little further north, hidden in the mountains, was the headquarters where, at that very moment, the nationwide, TET offensive, meant to turn the war in the Norths’ favor, is being planned. Cpt. Trang is tired! In fact, he is exhausted. He and his men had just finished an arduous and dangerous trek, traveling down the Ho Chi Minh trail, from North Vietnam to The Que Son Valley. Much of it had to be done at night, and 22 of his men had been killed by a B-52 bomber strike. Without warning, as if out of nowhere, hundreds of 2,000-pound bombs crashed suddenly, and horrifically, right on top of them. Coming from miles above, dropped from planes flying so high, they could not be seen or heard, the monster bombs, leave a massive, trail of huge craters. Holes in the ground, large enough to throw a house in. They transformed the jungle into a barren moon-scape, a scene of complete devastation. Littered with blood, and body parts, it is an unimaginable, inconceivable, sudden hell of fire and brimstone. Many soldiers, punch drunk, from the concussions alone, wandered about in a confused, half conscious daze, bleeding from the nose and mouth. It was a doomsday surprise, inflicted by the round-eyed devils, from their invisible, high-flying jets and it terrified and demoralized Trang and his men.
They had no love for the high-flying American pilots, who were unlikely candidates to win their “hearts & minds”. American pilots, like John McCain, who were captured and imprisoned, in the “Hanoi Hilton” would suffer their wrath for many years.  Now however, he and his men had arrived, to re-enforce others in the 3rd NVA Regiment.
                 Image result for b-52 arclight strike
                                                            We Just Want To Survive
 
  Unlike Cpt. Trang, and his soldiers’, intense hatred for the American invaders, most of the soldiers setting up LZ Colt had little interest in Vietnam”s civil war, and like Muhammed Ali, no personal quarrel with the North Vietnamese. Greek sometimes thinks, “Most of us just continue to follow orders, trying to survive a one year, ‘in country’ tour. Maybe Ali did the right thing in refusing to fight in the war.” Many have been involuntarily conscripted to serve. The number one priority for most, volunteers, and draftees alike, is just to remain alive, and to return to “the world” in one piece. They are told they are fighting for “freedom”, and to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. Many wanted to, or initially believed that, but few believed it for long. The 3rd Regiments’ soldiers, on the other hand, were not burdened with a mission to win our “hearts and minds”. They were patriots, prepared to fight, not just for a year, but for as long as necessary, as they had with the previous French invaders. They had repelled foreigners before, and they would do it again. They just wanted to see all the round eyes, dead or gone! Lt Kalergis, many years later would seriously think, “If I had it to do over, I think I would follow the example of Muhammed Ali, and refuse to go.”
                                                               Captain Trang Continues To Observe
As Cpt Trang continues to closely observe the occupation of the LZ, he can see it is a typical First Cavalry Division, fire base set-up. As he carefully draws a detailed description of the key element locations, he is keenly aware that this is one of three fire bases, set up in a triangle to provide interlocking fire support for each other and for the Brigades, maneuver elements. He knows that the Troopers from each of three battalions are conducting, Search & Destroy operations throughout the 100,000-square meter triangle, of mountainous jungle and rice paddies, that is their combat area of operations. (AO) On his sketch pad, Trang carefully draws the locations of the artillery guns, and fire direction center (FDC), the 5th/7th Battalion tactical operations center (TOC), the Officer and NCOs’ GP Large, personnel sleeping tent, and what he believes to be the smaller tent of the Battalion Commander and his Operations Officer. He already has a rough sketch of the position from a woman who, bringing in an injured infant for medical treatment, had scoped out the position. She has spoken, with her relatives in the south and she knew what had happened in the An-Lao. He continues to watch Kalergis, the tall Artillery Officer direct the set-up of the big 292, long range antennas for the FDC tent. He told the Sergeant next to him, “That tent is a priority target for the Mortars and Sapper Squads. We will knock out their communications, and command and control elements, so they will be unable to request or adjust supporting artillery fire.” He was pleased to see that the low-lying terrain of LZ Colt made it surprisingly, vulnerable to attack, and that there was only one, 80-man company, thinly spread around the entire, large perimeter for security. Not only that, the razor wire, and other defenses were only partially in place. The Sappers would only have to cut through one roll of razor wire, instead of the usual three. He continued to put together his situation briefing for Major Tran, and the other key officers of the Regiment thinking, “We will win this first battle, and deal a mortal blow to the First Cavalry Division presence here.”
                                               Getting Charlie Batterys’ Guns and FDC Ready To Fire
 
  Meanwhile, Shack and Greek are having a miserable, hell of a time, setting up the Firing Battery Guns and Fire Direction Center to support the brigades’ four maneuver companies. The Monsoon wind, and rain make the preparation damn near impossible! Greek watches Shack supervise the howitzer crewmen, as they slipped in the mud, often falling, four letter words, spit venomously at the mud, the war, and the world in general. They struggled mightily to get their heavy guns in place. In order to fire accurately, Artillery howitzers are laid parallel with each other, on a common direction, by an optical instrument called an Aiming Circle. The aiming circle is located some distance from the guns. They cannot begin firing, until that is accomplished. The howitzer crews, struggling, slipping, and sliding in the rain and mud, finally get a gun dug in and laid parallel. Then, to their vociferous dismay, after firing just a few rounds, the powerful recoil displaces the gun so far back in the mud, it cannot continue with accurate fire, and needs to be laid in again. It is a seemingly endless, dirty, and miserable task, but Shack continues trekking back and forth through the sloppy ground, over and over, as in a bad dream, to the Aiming Circle, to lay the guns again, and again. He knew when he finished, he was leaving for his six-day, R & R to Australia. He would have crawled on his hands and knees to get the job done, as visions of night clubs, and pretty, free spirited, Australian ladies danced in his head.  Finally, after hours of strenuous and muddy, hard work, all 6 guns are “laid in” parallel, the FDC is set up, and Charlie Battery is ready to fire.  Having finally accomplished this, dirty dog Shack, leaves us to go on his pre-planned, “Rest & Relaxation” trip to Australia. (All soldiers are given a six-day break for R & R midway through their year-long Vietnam tour.) Timing is everything, and Shack is not just lucky with the ladies it seemed. He would miss the opportunity to earn more medals to be added to his eventual 3 tour collection, of three Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts.
                         Image result for huey gunships nam 105 howitzers firing vietnam   Image result for huey gunships nam 105 howitzers firing vietnam   Image result for nam 105 howitzers firing vietnam
                                              
                                                                   105 MM Field Artillery Howitzers
                                            
                                                                           The Warning
                                              
The next morning, with the FDC and gun set-up complete, Lt Kalergis observes a 1st of the 9th Huey gunship team flying a low-level, first light, recon just to the south of Colt. Because he had flown with them, on first arriving in Nam, attached as a Forward Observer/Door Gunner, he knew they often found enemy targets. He dials up one of his radios to their frequency, telling them, “Charlie battery is ready to give you artillery support if needed, over.” They replied, “Brave Fighter 63, Roger, good to know, thanks, out.” Although, Greek knew their first choice, was the devastating fire power of their gunships’ organic 2.75 rockets, 40 MM automatic grenade launcher and two 7.62 machine guns, he continues to keep one his radios on their frequency to continue monitoring them. “Just in case”, Greek thinks. Sure enough, he hears the “Red” hunter-killer team surprise a good-sized enemy force crossing a small river, not far from Colt. He listens, as they engage, and kill them, quickly followed up by the insertion of a “Blue” reaction force platoon. Greek hears the blue team report on the radio to the gunships overhead, “We have 12 NVA KIA, and one of them has a map for an attack on a fire base.”   Greek, assuming that was Colt, and not sure the information will be passed quickly enough, through channels, to warn the Battalion Commander of the 5th of the 7th, asks Cpt. Haines, “What should I do, sir?” Chuck says, “His tent is only a couple hundred feet away, get on over there and tell him yourself.” Greek hurries over doing as he is told. He finds the 5th of the 7th battalion commander, sitting by his tent in a folding chair, and hurries over to report to him. As LTC Wickham listens, Lt Kalergis thinks, “His response is kind of perfunctory.” Trying to explain, in more detail, he is quickly and summarily dismissed. “Maybe I should have shaved.” Greek wryly muses.
                                                                 We Improvise
Greek returns to help his crew continue to urgently fill large, empty, wooden ammo boxes with dirt, to fortify the walls of the FDC tent. Fortunately, the FDC was able to be positioned right next to a huge rock, which protected one side of the tent.  That rock, and the improvised ammo boxes filled with dirt, will soon prove instrumental in saving Greek and his FDC crew! Normally, we would have had sand bags to use for that job, and the FDC crew, who had experienced only a little sniper fire, for the previous six months back in the Central Highlands, bitched and moaned as they labored in the rain. Chuck ordered us to “improvise” with the empty ammo boxes, and it was a damn good thing he did. Greek wonders what additional action, LTC Wickham is taking, as a result of their conversation. Whatever it was, it would soon prove not to be enough, to save him, his officers, or his TOC.
(The Rock on Colt, As seen many years later –  http://www.cav57.org/return.pdf )
                                                                        Major Trans Plan
 
The afternoon of the 9th of Oct., while the troopers on Colt, continue to struggle in the rain to improve their defenses, Cpt. Trang is briefing the 3rd regimental staff, about his observations. After hearing, and considering that report, Major Tran, briefs his plan for a full stage attack on LZ Colt, early the next morning. He tells the Third Regimental, assembled leaders, “At 4:45 AM, shortly prior to sunrise, the 17th Mortar Company is to commence a mortar barrage from this small hill rise, 750 meters from the enemy position.” He points to the map. “They are to rapidly fire 60 MM mortar rounds into the center of the enemy location, to quickly damage the Americans’ battalion TOC, officers’ tents, and the artillery FDC.  This will also cause the perimeter defenders, to get their heads down. Then, with mortar rounds continuing, and while the Americans still have their heads down in their foxholes, three squads of the V-16 Sapper Battalion, carrying explosives, are to cut the single roll of razor wire, and infiltrate under cover of darkness. Gaining unobserved entrance, they will use explosive charges to blow up the artillery pieces, and complete the destruction of the TOC, FDC and Officers tents. At first light, with the Americans’ communication, command, and control elements badly disrupted, the entire 5th and 6th Infantry Companies, supported by 57 MM Recoilless Rifles, B-40 Rocket Propelled Grenades, and RPD 7.62 Machine Guns from Cpt Phams’, 8th Combat Support Company, will commence the main attack. Close radio communication between the sappers and the mortar platoon is critical.” Cpt Trang asked the Major, “Sir, what can we do about the possible artillery fire available to support the enemy position, from the other two American fire bases? They could impede the plan, and hurt us with their fire power. Is it possible to attack them simultaneously?” Major Tran replied, “We don’t have soldiers in position to do that quickly and we can’t get them into position in time. If we wait, we will lose the element of surprise, and the Americans will have more time to build up their weak defenses.” Both sides desire for surprise, would come back to haunt them. It seems that plans for both sides, often need “reality checks” from those close to the action, but they are not always willing to listen. Tran continues, “If we knock out their communication capabilities early, they will not be able to coordinate artillery fire against us.”
He would later find, that to be a serious mistake. Still, the next morning of 10 Oct., was looking very, damn ominous for the sky troopers on LZ Colt.
                                                                            The Attack
 
  Very early that morning, in the FDC tent, Lt Kalergis, and his crew, are just finished with their early mornings’ “Harassment and Interdiction fires” (H & I). Just as he is laying down on his cot, to listen to the World Series on Armed Forces Radio Network. He is rooting for his Boston Red Sox and Jim Lonborg, is pitching a no-hitter for the Sox, when a powerful explosion just outside the tent sends him stumbling, stunned, to the ground. Quickly picking himself up, and rushing to the radios, he hears multiple, loud, explosions from 60 MM mortar rounds landing, in the dark, all around the LZ. Major Trans’ attack is underway; it was going to be a long rest of the night. Quickly getting the artillery battalion FDC on the radio, Greek urgently shouts, “We are getting mortared; stand by for a fire mission, over.” Followed by his quick exclamation, “Holy Shit, that one was close!”, as a 60 MM Mortar round strikes the big rock protecting one side of the FDC tent. Shredded canvas, wood and dirt, pelt them from the explosions of several mortar rounds, exploding right outside the FDC. His FDC crew would later spend hours picking out the shrapnel and bullets from the wooden ammo boxes. “Holy shit, look at this.”, echoed in Greeks ears, as his men picked shrapnel, and bullets from the ammo boxes that had saved their butts. The same boxes, they had loudly, bitched and moaned about filling with dirt, just hours earlier. Greek, ignoring the mortars, runs outside to try and locate them in the distance. He was pretty sure where they were coming from, as he had analyzed the terrain around Colt earlier, for just such an event. Sure enough, he hears the “plop”, plop” of mortars firing, and sees their flashes as they fire on Colt. He quickly plots their location and with his hands trembling with adrenaline, attempts to call in a fire mission with the small PRC-25 radio, he has carried outside. The reception is bad, so he runs back into the tent, tells his RTO to change to the longer antenna on the smaller PRC 25, (He will use it later.) and grabbing the handset of the “46” radio which used the large “292” antennas they had just set up, urgently yells into the handset, “Fire Mission, grid 294 637, direction 3200, mortars firing, adjust fire over!” The Battalion FDC, repeats the fire mission back and in about 30 seconds replies, “Shot Over!”. “Shot Out!”, the Greek replies waiting to observe the rounds impact, he immediately replies, “Drop 50, Fire-For-Effect, Over!”  “Shot, over!” is the very rapid response from the Battalion FDC.
It is surreal, as waiting for the rounds to land, he can still hear the announcer for the World Series, back in the good old USA, broadcasting the ball game from halfway around the world.  Greek thinks, as he often did in combat “How weird, it seems like a slow-motion movie. Is this really happening?” It is happening, as he now sees six 105 MM rounds, explode very close to the mortar flashes. He rushes back inside, pushes the handset and requests, “Continuous fire, over!” Very soon, hundreds of rounds are on the way. They scream in like wailing banshees in the night, whistling in very low over his head, he is glad to hear them. They cover the target area with acrid black smoke, incandescent red flashes, and the eerie, whizzing, whine, of razor-sharp shrapnel searching for soft flesh. Sharp, jagged steel, scientifically designed to damage human tissues, appears to have silenced the mortars, and after several minutes of continuous fire, Greek says, “End of mission, mortars silenced, Over.”  “End of mission, Out.” Replies the Battalion FDC.  During the mission, strangely, the Battalion FDC tells Greek, “We have a request from LTC Wickham, “Big Wolf 6” to bring fire directly on the LZ.” Critically wounded and with his headquarters wiped out, the battalion commander, mistakenly decides that Colt has been completely overrun, all is lost, and that as a last resort, artillery fire needed to be placed right on top of the LZ. The Greek replies“Hell no, do not fire on us. Everything is under control.” If Greek had not countermanded that fire request from Big Wolf Six, our own artillery would have tragically, and mistakenly fired on and destroyed many of Colts’ defenders. He continues to run in and out of the tent, using the large “46” radios to adjust fires. While inside the tent reporting, “end of mission”, on the mortar target, his RTO suddenly yells in a panicked voice, “Sir, Sir, I hear them speaking Vietnamese outside the tent.” Greek says, “F**k me, they have penetrated the wire!” He tells his 5-man crew, “Get your asses outside, in your foxholes, and keep those bastards out of the FDC, RIGHT NOW!” Simultaneously, Greek hears rapid small arms and automatic weapons fire, with multiple explosions, from the area of the 5th, of the 7th Battalion Headquarters, just several hundred feet away. As Major Tran had planned, the three Sapper squads, while Colts defenders had their heads down, have penetrated the one strand of wire, unobserved in the darkness, and are now raising hell from right inside our perimeter. Almost instantly, they blow up the Battalion TOC and its personnel, as well as the large GP tent, in which the off duty, battalion personnel are sleeping.
The 5th of the 7th, command centers’ officers and NCOs are all dead or wounded. So far, Major Trans’ plan is working perfectly. Simultaneously, other sappers, have thrown an explosive charge into the tent occupied by the 5th of the 7th Commander, critically wounding him, and killing his Battalion Operations Officer. Taken completely by surprise, all the other battalion personnel, officers and NCOs have been immediately killed or wounded. While the soldiers on perimeter defense, still had their heads down to avoid the mortars, the NVA, incredibly brave and daring, have attacked under their own mortar fire.  Without his rifle, Greek runs outside again, to adjust more fire on the jungle tree line, only to see one of the NVA Sappers, probably the same one who had just shot and wounded Big Wolf 6, and killed his Operations Officer, is just 100 feet away from the FDC, pointing his AK 47 right at him. Time stands still, as Greek thinks, “Oh F**k! I’m dead!” Before, the NVA soldier can fire, one of the cannoneers on the gun line, shoots him stone, cold dead with his M-16 rifle on automatic. Just one of the many acts of valor performed by American soldiers all around the LZ that night. Greek, damn near shitting his britches, sees Chuck, in his white underwear, 45-pistol, in hand, running from gun to gun, rallying the soldiers on them to repel the sappers attempting to blow them up. Fearing a much larger follow up attack, in the dawning light, Lt Kalergis now starts adjusting fire on the tree line, with four artillery batteries. (Two 105MM and two 155MM) He is not certain the NVA are massed there for an attack, but he knows they easily could be, just waiting, as was their practice, to commence a “First Light” assault on Colt. As the light increases, over the next several hours, Greek adjusts over 2,000 artillery rounds (50 tons of High Explosives) continuously into the edge of the jungle. He starts at the tree line and then moves the rounds in continuous fire, along possible routes of retreat. Greek thinks, “I don’t know if those f**kers are out there in that tree line or not, but if they are, they are in a world of f***ing hurt.”
*He would find out, decades later, that they were there, preparing to launch a mass attack on LZ Colt
                                                        Attack As Perceived By Cpt. Trang
 
Cpt Trang, simultaneously, is crouching in the darkness of a tree line just outside LZ Colt watching as the 17th Mortar Company starts its barrage. They were good, and almost immediately are getting direct hits on their targets in the center of the LZ. Very quickly, too quickly it seemed, the American artillery was returning fire on the mortar position. Soon, his mortars are silent. He did not know if they were out of action, but he could not communicate with them and they had ceased firing earlier than expected. Now, the cascading artillery rounds are moving from his Mortars location to the tree line, where three companies of NVA soldiers lay poised for a “first light” attack. Fortunately, for the defenders of Colt, an additional company of NVA soldiers that were supposed to attack from the opposite side of the LZ, were prevented from getting into position, the previous afternoon, by a 1st/9th “Hunter-Killer” team.  The same helicopters, that Greek had spoken with on the radio. Major Tran still has his several hundred soldiers poised to attack, from Trangs’ position, and he is determined to go through with it. Suddenly, the intensity of the artillery fire dramatically increases, as Lt Kalergis’ request for “continuous fire” starts landing. Hundreds of rounds fall accurately and continuously, almost as if the, Greek knew exactly where the enemy is. It didn’t matter that Greek was lucky with his location of the target, the effect of tons of continuous high explosives landing on them was unimaginable. These were not small rounds, like the 60 MM mortars; this was the combined, massive firepower of Division Artillery steel, from two 105 MM and two-155 MM howitzer batteries. Some had VT (radar) fuses exploding 20 meters above the enemy, with huge flashes and acrid black smoke, raining, jagged, sharp, and deadly shrapnel down on the NVA soldiers. Just as they have surprised, the defenders of LZ Colt, now they are caught by surprise by how rapid, responsive and accurate the devastating fire is from the First Cavalry artillery.  They had no idea how much or how fast the divisions’ artillery would be massed right on top of them!  Now Major Tran is on the radio, ordering the attack, but Cpt Trang, and the assembled attack force, are no longer thinking about attacking. They are desperately withdrawing to escape the 50 tons of steel from thousands of rounds of artillery rapidly, cascading down on them.
As they try to withdraw, Greek, with good intuition, has continued adjusting fire to follow them as they retreat through the jungle. The artillery follows their panicked withdrawal, inflicting more and more casualties. Major Tran should have listened to Cpt. Trang, as he had gravely underestimated the effectiveness, and speed of the First Cavalry Division Artillery massed fire power. His soldiers are paying dearly for Major Trans’, element of surprise. Surprise is turning out to be a “Double Edged Sword”, and LZ Colt, despite some key casualties, for the moment is saved.
                                                                           Later
 Later, with the sun now higher in the sky, and while the soldiers of LZ Colt are assessing, and recovering from their damage, Cpt. Trang has retreated to the very well-hidden mountainous jungle location of the 2nd NVA Division headquarters. He is licking his wounds and thinking, “This is not over! We will learn from it, and TET is not far off.”  Trang is correct in his thinking; during the TET offensive less than 2 months later, the same First Cavalry planners, instrumental in the LZ Colt debacle, make the same mistake again with another battalion by committing them to battle before adequate artillery, and equipment support is available.
*That battle is eloquently, and accurately described by LTC (Ret.) Charles Krohn, in his fascinating and historically correct book, “The Lost Battalion of TET”.
Lt Kalergis father, then Brigadier General James G. Kalergis, also in Vietnam, commanding the First Field Force Artillery in Na Trang, visits the Brigade Headquarters the next day, to be briefed on the battle. When the briefing is over, although Lt Kalergis did not have the detailed enemy information he later discovered, decades after the war, was able to listen to the briefing given his father. it sounded quite a bit different than what he had experienced. Once again, the Elephant Grass, did not look the same on maps, as on the frigging ground. Greek told his father, “Dad that is not exactly the way it went down.” He replied, “I know son.” Greek thinks, “He must be proud of me, but he didn’t tell me that!”
                                       After action notes from LTC (ret) George Kalergis
A decade later, Greeks Dad, now a Lt. General, calls him, and asks, “Do you remember LTC Wickham from Vietnam?” Greek replies, “Of course.” His dad told him, “Well, he just earned his 4th star, and is now Chief of Staff of the entire Army.” Wow! Greek thinks, “I have often wondered, if General Wickham, remembered their meeting on Colt, and what might have been done, to build up Colts defense as a result.” Perhaps, nothing more could have been done, but I was keenly interested in hearing from him. Hindsight is always 20-29. Much later, Lt. Kalergis, now LTC Kalergis, is waiting to retire from his final assignment, as the 7th Division Artillery, Operations Officer, when General Wickham visits Ft Ord California, and gives a talk to the division officers. After listening to the Generals’ talk, Kalergis found his aide, and told him, “I was on LZ Colt with the General and would like to meet with him.” General Wickham declined. Googling his description of the attack, many decades later, it seems his recall of the attack differs from my memory of it. That is not surprising as he was immediately, so severely wounded as he slept, that he was given “last rites” by the Chaplain.   http://www.cav57.org/LZ%20Colt.htm                        
I learned decades later, that others, may have claimed credit for calling and adjusting the artillery that night. Just to set the record straight, as my Bronze Star, awarded for the battle, and officers’ OER attest, I was the only one speaking with the battalion FDC, that morning calling for, and adjusting artillery fire. With the exception, of LTC Wickhams’, mistaken lone call requesting fire directly on the LZ, which I aborted, I personally adjusted every one of the 2,000 rounds fired in defense of LZ Colt.
  I did not know the final chapter of the story of LZ Colt, until over forty years later when I met and received information from retired General Prince. (Found on Facebook) He was the only 5th of the 7th officer, other than Wickham, who survived the attack on Colt. He told me that on the morning of the attack, he had awoken early and gone outside the tent to take the luckiest “leak” of his life. That was just moments before the mortars started falling. He is wounded by shrapnel, but, survived his wounds.
To my incredulous ears, he informed me, almost fifty years later about documents that had been recovered from Major Tran when he was killed by a 1st of the 9th “Red” hunter-killer team several days after the attack. They found on his possession, the complete plan, and after-action report for the attack on LZ Colt and its’ aftermath. Finding that information, decades later, has enabled me to tell this story. It is factual, based on my personal experience. I am not sure of the spelling or ranks of the NVA officers, and of course, it is just my “educated” guess what their thoughts, and actions may have been. I am not pointing fingers, or blaming anyone in that battle or the war, for their actions or lack of actions. I am just reporting the battle, and the Vietnam War as I personally experienced it, objectively as I can. Others can easily have different perspectives in the frenzy of combat, and with the passage of time.
 I honor and respect all my brothers who fought in that terrible war. In the heat of battle, there will always be mistakes, even from the best of us, and we all have our own memories of those events. In combat, many are called upon to make life and death decisions for themselves and others. Mine have not always been right, I made some poor and some good decisions. In combat and life in general, we all make mistakes, and we cannot be right all the time. Mistakes incur a much bigger cost in combat. We all live with them as best we can. I have lost track of Chuck Haines but Ray Shackelford (Shack) and I have stayed in touch and get together once in awhile to relive our adventures in the war.
  I am content with my 20 years Army career, rising from a “draftee” and progressing from Private E-1 to LTC. I greatly value my relationships with some incredible people that I worked for and that worked for me. My Dad never did tell me he was proud of me. Maybe older generations of Greek immigrants just don’t do that. However, I later learned that he did tell one of his close friends he was very proud of me, and they passed that on to me. I still miss getting a hug with that information. “Truth in lending”, I was always kind of a square peg in a round hole in the military, especially the peace time military, and not really cut out to be a typical Army officer. I could never catch up with my father, who was also an OCS graduate. He went from Pvt E-1 to 3 stars. Thinking back over those days, I am greatly gratified, and humbled to learn, so long after the war, that my actions may have played a part in saving many of my Comrades in Arms on LZ Colt.                             “GARRYOWEN!”