US Infantry in Vietnam - Friendly Fire Incidents

Friendly Fire

It seems to me that most folks cannot grasp the idea of death or injury of soldiers, accidentally, by friendly fire, of whatever type.

I was on the receiving end of friendly fire more than once during my time in the RVN, and I know that  I was not alone. I have been told of friendly fire incidents by a number of ex- GIs and Marines who were grunts.

It is something that the military in general and the individual soldiers try to avoid, but are forced to live with by the very nature of warfare and modern weaponry.

The first time "we" came under friendly fire was as a result of an ambush patrol operating within several 1000s meters of our base camp perimeter. After we disengaged, and were falling back towards the nearest roadway and gate into the base camp, we came under small arms and machinegun fire (including a .50 cal M2 Browning HMG mounted on the bunker next to the gate itself) when we left the concealment of the rubber trees and entered the roadway. Reason? Jumpy soldiers with limited or no experience who shot first and asked questions later. Thank God the HMG gunner was so excited he forgot to blow the claymore mines controlled by the bunker and sited to cover the dirt road and the drainage ditches on each side of same. (LOL! I remember laying in the shelter of the ditch, feeling safe, when in the flickering light of an 81mm parachute flare I saw the shape of a claymore about 18" away from my face, pointing my way! Not that it would have made any difference to ME if it was pointed the OTHER WAY - the backblast would have blown me away!)

The second time "we" came under friendly fire was during an operation in the rubber trees of a plantation near Bien Hoa. The company was moving through the rubber looking for trouble with 2 platoons skirmishing on line up front, and the 3rd platoon following them in a skirmish line about a 100 yards behind.

I was fighting with that piece of shit helmet radio system the Army pushed off on us to use in combat - the so called sergeant in everyman's ear comm system. I could not make out a single word, let alone a complete sentence the LT was saying to me or anyone else, so I was watching him for hand signals and trying to keep my squad intervals as we moved. He was about 100 yards away.

Suddenly, I could (and we could) hear an incoming round, a bigger round than a mortar round. We never heard the "shot" from the artillery piece that fired it, but then y'all seldom if ever do. Everyone dived for cover and tried to crawl under their helmets in fear of an airburst resulting from the round striking a rubber tree. It impacted on the ground in the neighboring platoon, killing a particularly loud and obnoxious lifer SSG (who came to us straight from a Basic Combat Training unit and laboring under the impression that WE were basic trainees) and wounding several other men.

We never did find out who fired the round, so we never knew if it was a US or an ARVN 105mm howitzer HE round that hit our company. We never knew if it was an H & I round targeted at map coords or was a short round that fell from the sky on us that was targeted somewhere else.

The next time "we" came under friendly fire was during an operation near the Black Virgin Mountain (Nuie Bai Dinh) on an ambush patrol one dark and rainy night out in the middle of a grassy plain, next to a dirt road. The AP down the road a couple of miles from us (actually on the intersecting road ) blew an AP on a gook unit. We lay in the dark and rain, listening (on the radio and with our ears) to the running fight almost all of the way to the NDP between the surviving gooks and the AP from the other company.

And then it was our turn! We blew our ambush on a platoon sized gook unit, only to discover they were part of a gook company! And now it was our turn to shoot and scoot for the NDP. We lucked out and got away behind a shitpot load of 81mm rounds that I had preplotted earlier.

But in the confusion of pursuit and evasion, we ended up approaching the NDP from a side of the perimeter that was not held by our company. I knew this because there was no huge tree in the grass on our side of the NDP, and this tree was clearly visible in the light of the 81mm parachute flares overhead.

So when we got close to the NDP, I had the AP lay down, and stood up all alone to scream out to the OPs I knew were close-by that , '"MIKE AP IS COMING IN!"

So the OPs obligingly invited us to come on in to the NDP without shooting us to pieces. That was a sense of relief that was indescribable.

It was while we were moving toward the NDP, an 81mm mortar firing H & I to cover us had a short round! We heard the odd discharge of the round, heard the GIs screaming "SHORT ROUND! SHORT ROUND!" and I actually saw the spark as a piece of the propellant ring flew off and sailed through the darkness. Everyone ate mud and the round blew up beyond us without causing any injuries.

Later, during an operation in the howling wilderness near Cambodia, we (the battalion) were digging in for the night at the clearing that had been selected as the location of our NDP. It was in the late afternoon, and we had humped through the jungle and elephant grass most of the day to get here. There were OPs around the perimeter, working parties gathering wood for overhead cover out in the jungle, and soldiers busily digging their fighting positions all around the perimeter, to the accompaniment of howling chainsaws, the metallic clink-chunk of shovels, axes, entrenching tools and cursing GIs as we struggled to dig holes in the damned ladderite (gravel-clay mix).

It was nearing darkness, which comes fast in the jungle, when we heard the round coming in from Out There, addressed to Whom It May Concern. We could tell it was a big round from the noise it made as it ripped through air, a real big one, and we could tell it was coming toward our NDP clearing.

Soldiers that had a hole below ground level to jump into, did so, while everyone else above ground level tried to sink into the ground, trying to get as low as possible for safety. I jumped into the open topped and incomplete fighting position along with my work mates. The shell hit the platoon area next to my platoon with a soundless red flash that tossed us about inside the hole like we were beans in a can. The explosion deafened us, and stunned us, too, literally knocking the wind out of our lungs. I do not know how long we just lay there, too stunned and disbelieving to move, but it could not have been very long. When no more monster rounds arrived, we cautiously stuck up our heads to see what had happened. What had happened was that one shell killed or wounded most of the neighboring platoon. ONE SHELL!

Later we found out it was a rogue 8" howitzer round, a damned round that was either misdirected or just short of its target, that was aimed at a set of map coords for H and I fires far from us. We were just unlucky and under the trajectory of the shoot. We were lucky that it was all alone, and not part of a battery shoot that was on target. If it had been, one hell of a lot of GIs would have killed and wounded. Those 8" howitzers are widow-makers of the first class.....

To this day, when the night horrors strike, I can see the gloomy perimeter full of laboring GIs, smell the earth, and hear the sounds of the battalion digging in. Then I can hear that 8" shell coming, coming, coming, the screams of "INCOMING! INCOMING!" followed by that soundless red flare and earthshaking blast. And I can see and smell the obscene wreckage of what had been living men such a short time before.

This last horror, was my last experience with friendly fire as a grunt. Soon thereafter (about a week or 10 days) I collapsed with malaria and was medevaced from the field to the big hospital at Long Binh for treatment.

So there are my own experiences with friendly fire as a grunt to ponder over. The hardest thing for me, for any of us to come to grips with, was the sheer random and indifferent death that just dropped from the sky on us. Death at the hands of friends who probably never even knew we were there until after the shell bursts and investigation as to reasons why it happened.

Delta Mike Two, Out!


1st Infantry Division TAOR (1969)

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