8:33 | Following a harrowing first day of combat, Tom Buchan was surprised to find hot food flown in and cots to sleep on. He managed to finally get himself on a tank crew through sheer will and intelligence. It was the day he helped out one of the APC crews, though, that earned him recognition.
Keywords : Tom Buchan Vietnam tank night defensive position (NDP) M551 Sheridan technical manual loader Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) M-79 grenade launcher shrapnel Bronze Star
He was a rebel who hated school. Tom Buchan spent most of his time trying to stay out of trouble when he began to get interested in the draft he knew was coming for him. Wanting to choose his specialty in the Army, he joined the reserves to become a tank crewman.
After his reserve unit had been dissolved, Tom Buchan was working in his auto mechanic shop when he got a letter from Uncle Sam. He went to Fort Carson to a mechanized infantry unit. "I'm a tanker," he told them, but he was put to work as a radioman and then as a driver. He might have finished out his obligation stateside but he got into a ruckus in a bar. The CO didn't like that.
While stationed at Fort Carson, Tom Buchan took a moonlighting job as an auto mechanic. This kept him off the streets and it led to something special, a chance meeting.
He got fatigues and gear in Oakland and flew on a charter across the Pacific to Vietnam. Tom Buchan was there as a replacement and had received no training specific to Vietnam as of yet. Fortunately, there was a three day orientation at his first stop before he was sent up to Cu Chi, to the 3-4 Cav. He saw tanks when he arrived and was hopeful he could avoid the infantry job he dreaded.
When he got to his assigned base at Cu Chi, Tom Buchan finally got a weapon but they didn't give him any ammo. He was a tanker by training but the platoon sergeant put him on an APC. There's got to be some mistake, he thought. They bedded down for the night at a fire support base and, when he woke up and struck a match for a smoke, all hell broke loose.
The first day in combat in Vietnam was a memorable one for Tom Buchan. He learned an RPG could hit at anytime, that you could fire your weapon for hours without having seen anything, that a path that ended abruptly was hiding something and that good peripheral vision was essential.
Around Cu Chi, you almost never saw the enemy who was shooting at you. He would pop out of a hole, fire off some rounds and hide again. It was maddening to Tom Buchan, but at least there weren't many booby traps in the area. He did nearly run over a land mine, but was saved by a driver who cut in front of the tank.
Tom Buchan finally got his own tank, despite not yet making buck sergeant. That meant he owed his platoon sergeant a favor and that turned out to be some night guard duty atop the sergeant's tank. It was in the dead of night that he saw the backblast from an RPG and time began to slow down. He thought he was done for. It was a close one, but it was the next one that sent him to the medics.
Tank commander Tom Buchan was taking fire from a hooch, so he fired a high explosive round. Nothing, it passed right through. It turns out that's not the type of round you want.
Tom Buchan learned a lot in Vietnam, a lot about combat, third world countries, politics, poverty and a lot about himself. When he got off the plane after it was all over, some anti-war protestors taunted him with hateful speech. He nearly lost it.
Twenty years or so after the war ended, Tom Buchan was "walking the wall." A scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had come to town and, as a volunteer chaplain, he was there to support anyone who needed it. He noticed a man sitting in a car nearby, just watching.