Episode 14 “The Day I Shot a Mountain”
Click on the player above to listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.
Life on a firebase was interesting.
Sometimes we had really nice views of the beautiful countryside of Vietnam.
And we knew we were reasonably safe because we had concertina wire around our entire hill and soldiers from the infantry pulling guard duty for us.
So we didn’t really think that much about sappers and mortar attacks.
When we arrived on a new firebase, it seldom took us long to develop a simple routine for our daily lives.
We kept our fire direction control center neat and ready to go into operation at a moments notice. That was our first job.
We had three nice meals meals every day. Well, nice might be pushing it a bit, but it was food.
On one firebase we even had TV time. One soldier had a small black and white TV with rabbit ears which allowed us to pick up the Armed Forces TV signal. They would play current shows from back home
I remember I would try to make time to watch one show — Adam 12.
I didn’t watch Adam 12 because it was an interesting show. I watched it because it followed a pair of Los Angeles police officers as they drove around Los Angeles and I enjoyed seeing the pictures of my home town.
THE ROK SOLDIERS
Sometimes we shared a firebase with troops from our allies. One time we were on the hill with ROK soldiers. ROK stood for Republic of Korea — also known as South Korea.
The ROK soldiers had a reputation for being tough fighters.
I remember one day I went out early in the morning and a group of ROK soldiers were in squad formation.
I didn’t pay much attention to them until the guy in charge (I didn’t know if he was a sergeant or an officer) began screaming and yelling at his men.
I wasn’t used to seeing that. It didn’t seem like a pleasant or productive experience.
Their leader called out a name and one ROK soldier stepped forward. The leader then directed all his vitriol toward that single soldier. I don’t know what the guy did — I have to admit my Korean language skills border on non-existent — but the leader was obviously upset with him.
The leader got face to face with the soldier and then began punching him. I’m serious. He just began hitting the guy.
Everyone in the squad remained at attention looking straight ahead as the beating continued.
The soldier didn’t resist the beating and eventually he fell to the ground. He got back to his feet and let the leader continue to beat him.
I couldn’t handle watching it so I returned to my Fire Direction Control center — my quiet, gentle, calm FDC — where life was a little more laid back.
On one firebase we even had a mascot — a cute dog that we called “Niner.”
That’s me and Niner on LZ Crest.
I’m the one on the left.
I don’t know where Niner came from or why he chose to make us part of his family, but it was fun to see him and interact with him.
Niner would drop by every day and play with us for awhile. Everyone in our unit enjoyed having him around.
Then one day … he didn’t show up.
We don’t know where Niner went or why he never returned to us but we missed him.
Some suggested that the Vietnamese soldiers who were on the firebase probably took him and ate him. Apparently dog was one of the menu items in their lifestyle.
I have no idea if that was true but most of us thought it was.
One of the nice breaks in our routine was the day we received mail. A chopper would fly in and drop off people and supplies and sometimes a bag with mail.
When that mail bag arrived people began crowding around hoping they would receive a letter from home. A couple of times I even got the opportunity to be the mailman.
Mail was a big deal for most of us.
You have to remember this was before cell phones, text messages and the internet. Our only communication with family and friends back home was mail.
Some soldiers seemed to always get letters. Some seemed to never receive letters.
For those of you who wrote me during that time, I can’t thank you enough.
I treasured the letters I received.
Okay, I’ve stalled long enough.
The title of this episode is “The Day I Shot a Mountain” so I might as well get to it.
One day we received the call on the radio for a “Fire Mission.” The forward observer with the troops gave us the coordinates and the guy working our radio entered the information into Freddy.
I was working the backup position at the map so I placed a plotting pin into the location we had been given and began working out the shooting solution manually.
The guy using Freddy called out the shooting solution and I agreed that it was accurate.
So he called the guns and gave them the elevation, direction and charge, and ordered a marking round.
We heard the shot from the gun crew and waited for any corrections from the field.
And we waited.
It was taking too long.
Finally, the forward observer called and asked when we were going to fire.
In the FDC we just looked at each other. The shell had been shot and should have landed. What happened?
I looked at the map.
That’s when I saw the problem.
There was a mountain between us and the infantry units on the ground. So instead of hitting the target where our troops were, we shot a mountain.
We quickly recalculated the shooting solution using “high angle fire” in order to reach the target.
Our marking round exploded over the target and we completed the fire mission.
We tried to joke about it.
I mean how often does an artillery unit accidentally shoot a mountain?
But I knew it wasn’t funny.
That is the type of mistake that causes a “friendly fire” incident. We were fortunate that no one was on the mountain where our shell landed. All it did was blow up some jungle.
No people — civilian or military — were injured.
Had the round killed someone, it would have been my fault. I could have blamed our computer, Freddy, for generating an incorrect response, but it was my job to check the computer.
I failed at that job.
That was the day I shot a mountain.
There were a couple of lessons from this period.
Learn to do your job correctly.
Sometimes the Lord protects you when you make dumb mistakes. Be sure and thank Him for doing that.