3:53 | Bob Ballagh says nearly all of his West Point class wanted to go to Vietnam. "A good soldier runs to the sound of guns." Assigned to the 1st Cavalry field artillery, he was engaged in a major battle almost immediately at Pleiku.
Keywords : Bob Ballagh Vietnam Germany 1st Cavalry replacement morale newbie Cam Ranh Bay An Khe Pleiku infiltration helicopter .50 cal
Inspired by his father's service, Bob Ballagh excelled at West Point. When he graduated, he found out that due to a short-lived policy, he wouldn't be going to officer's basic training in his field of artillery. Fortunately, in his first deployment to Germany, he encountered a commander who made sure he received the training.
To keep his artillery fire base from being mortared, Bob Ballagh relied on intelligence and pre-planning. Plotting all possible firing sites for the enemy allowed for a very fast response, sometimes even before the offending shell landed.
The artillery was moved north in anticipation of a battle and what a battle it turned out to be, the Tet offensive. It was a good reason to use new classified ammunition and Bob Ballagh's unit was the first to fire it. It was also during that operation that he received the Soldier's Medal for pulling soldiers to safety from a fire.
After a massive relief operation at Khe Sanh, Bob Ballagh was put in command of an artillery battery and right away began dealing with fallout from poor leadership. Two batteries were airlifted to the same spot and the battalion commander failed to deal with it.
The 1st Cavalry's artillery was highly mobile and used quick air assaults to move where they were needed. For some reason, says Bob Ballagh, a new commander increased the number of rounds each battery had to keep on hand and that slowed things down considerably.
The howitzers sat on base plates and rotated with hand cranks. Battery commander Bob Ballagh relates how his sergeants used a little negative reinforcement to make sure the soldiers started the rotation in the right direction.
Poor leadership from above kept confronting battery commander Bob Ballagh in Vietnam. This time, his battery was accused of friendly fire on a Marine base, even though it was far beyond the range of his guns.
Daily life in an artillery battery involved dealing with an excess of gunpowder bags from the shells. Unfortunately for Bob Ballagh and his men, there was no excess of steak, ice cream or beer.
Under his command in Vietnam, only one soldier was lost. Bob Ballagh felt badly about that, but was proud that was the only loss. After over one hundred air assaults, he returned home and advocated for a return to unit basis for deployments and was gratified when the Army changed the policy.
Getting shot at was bad enough but not being able to take a shower really got to Jesse Groves when he had to stay in the field for weeks at a time. He had a new family, the men in his platoon, and they all smelled just as bad as he did. (Caution: strong language.)
There was little contact up by the DMZ so the 1st Air Cavalry was moved south near the Cambodian border. Plenty of action there. The first day, Jerry Gast's platoon set off on a 500 meter sweep in front of the perimeter and ran into a trail. The ambitious lieutenant decided they would follow it. Bad idea.
Living full time with his Vietnamese crew meant that Galen Hoover ate what they ate. His first night on the river, they served him a dish that was so good, he requested it regularly, even after he found out what it was. The crew knew he was really green, so the boat captain thought he would mess with the new advisor a little.
As his sister drove him to the airport to leave for Vietnam, a morbid thought came over Jesse Groves. He forgot about it when he got there and stepped off the plane into what seemed like hell itself. (Caution: strong language.)
The bullet barely missed wrecking his knee. Jack Jeter was in for some hospital time before he could go home. Once he did, he was amazed at the blase attitude of his friends about Vietnam. Part 3 of 3. (Caution: strong language.)
Vietnamization was underway and, soon, Galen Hoover was sleeping away the long flight home. He landed in San Francisco and was glad to be back in the States, but as he left the plane, here came the peace protestors. What happened next haunts him still.
Jesse Groves knew he might get shot by the same guy who shot the man lying out there by the VC bunker. He considered it, then headed out. This occurred during a long series of firefights which would decimate the company.
Tony Coalson's helicopter unit flew all of II Corps, a fourth of the entire country, unlike dedicated combat units, which only flew in their little slice of Vietnam. He recalls his first combat related mission, in which he delivered an assessment team right in the middle of one of the biggest battles of the war. Part 1 of 2.
The day Jack Jeter was wounded was the third day of serious firefights. His commanding officer, Captain Barry McCaffrey, was wounded on the first day and the temporary replacement had his own ideas about how to proceed. That led the unit right into big trouble. Part 1 of 3. (Caution: strong language.)
Mail call was a really big deal to Jesse Groves. There was very little contact with the outside world in the jungles of Vietnam. He was vaguely aware of the anti-war movement, but a man getting shot at has no time to ponder such things.
When helicopter pilot Tony Coalson was on the ground during the Battle of Dak To, he was astounded at the numbers of American dead. Some of the casualties were from a terrible friendly fire incident. He remembers watching a C-130 full of wounded men just barely survive takeoff. When he returned to his base, he had a solemn observation for his roommate. Part 2 of 2.
The river boats were patrolling in narrow canals and rivers, searching for infiltrating NVA troops. Galen Hoover was in the second boat, trailing a boat that was supposed to be mine sweeping. That was the last thing he remembered about that day.
When his unit moved to the A Shau Valley and got new leadership, Jesse Groves noticed a marked improvement. The action there was hot but the company was functioning at a high level. He especially appreciated the gutsy new 1st Sergeant.
Willard Womack was nervously awaiting the news of what happened to the helicopter carrying some of his friends who had just participated in the Battle of Ap Bac, a crucial turning point early in the war. They had come though that unscathed but were now missing. Decades later, he received an email that brought the memories flooding back. Part 3 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
When Galen Hoover woke up in a hospital with a bandaged head and a broken hand, he had no idea what happened or how he got there. The guys from his unit came to see him and he finally heard the tale of that fateful patrol on the canal that day.
Coming home from Vietnam was a difficult experience. Jesse Groves was perplexed by the apathy and outright abuse. He suppressed his memories and moved on. Once later wars made service respectable again, and once he began to reconnect with his comrades, he could feel proud of his service.
Upon leading the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, Myron Harrington had to help conduct an attack on the citadel in Hue City, Vietnam. This is the story of how he and his men charged the tower, which took longer to accomplish than expected.
Willard Womack gives his account of the Battle of Ap Bac, a significant turning point in the Vietnam War. It begins with him hitching a flight to Saigon to pick up the pay for his outfit. Detoured on his way back to his base, he saw a group of men listening intently to a firefight on a radio. Part 1 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
As the American advisor argued with his Vietnamese counterpart over the radio, Willard Womack, an Army pilot stuck in transit, could hear the frustration mounting. The battle of Ap Bac could not be won with these tactics. Eventually, the evacuation was made and, weeks later, several of the aviators involved hitched a ride to Saigon for a night of carousing. Pt 2 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
After the column was devastated by an NVA ambush, wounded Americans were scattered in the darkness. After his captain heard one such group calling for help on the radio, Freddie Owens joined a patrol to find them, guided by a gunshot every few minutes. Once there, medic Daniel Torres volunteered to stay with those who couldn't move and protected them through the night with medicine and a machine gun.
There were 87 men on some high ground surrounded by Viet Cong and Marine helicopter pilot Bill Cunningham had a problem. There was only room for one ship at a time to land in the tiny landing zone they had hacked out of the bush. It would be one at a time so he spiraled down for the first load. Then he felt like a sledgehammer hit his leg.
They were hunkered down after fierce fighting when the call came from "Ghost 4-6." It was a group of wounded men who had pulled themselves together after the ill fated march to LZ Albany and were lost in the dark. George Forrest sent a patrol to find them, and in an incredible act of bravery, medic Daniel Torres stayed through the night with them and saved many men. Captain Forrest still had to write a gut-wrenching letter to the mother of a missing soldier. Part 3 of 4.
The RPG that severed Joe McDonald’s foot didn’t kill him. The machine gun fire that hit him as he still tried to help others didn’t kill him. The grenade taped to his hand might have killed him if the VC had found his hiding place.
In a letter home, Tommy Clack expressed his worry that something bad was going to happen and it did when his unit engaged the NVA near the Cambodian border. He saw the enemy soldier stand and fire the RPG that changed his life forever.
As Marine Captain Ron Christmas fought to regain the city of Hue, he found the enemy adept at concealment and surprise. Every soldier in a spider hole was armed with a rifle and a RPG launcher. He also encountered a nun with an AK-47. His action during this time earned him the Navy Cross.
Jesse Groves had a tough upbringing until he went to live on a dairy farm, where he thrived. Drafted into the Army, he was about to find out about that war in Vietnam, of which he was only vaguely aware.
Jerry Gast says it was the leadership in his company that made all the difference in Vietnam. Captain Barry McCaffrey and 1st Sergeant Emerson Trainer set the tone and it filtered down though the NCO's. That all took a turn when both were wounded at the beginning of a fierce firefight.