I was the original platoon leader of the flame platoon "Zippo" in the 1st Bn 61st Infantry, 5th Division, from April '68 at Carson until Nov '68 when I became the XO HHC 1/61.
The company commanders must remember more than I about Ft Carson training but I do remember twice having it suspended so we could do riot control training (May Day at the Pentagon & one other - Chicago???). When I first arrived the platoon consisted of new troops (semi surly as most had been at McGuire AFB with orders for armor units in Germany) and no equipment...flame tracks arrived about a month later but we were able to find some field manuals & devised a training scheme. Then I persuaded the BN staff to send our entire platoon to Ft McClellan for a week. They had throwers mounted on trailers (Chemical Branch) and we were able to get depot level maintenance certificates for some of the men and thus could order parts for rapid repair...in hind sight it would have been safer for us to have been required to send inoperable tracks back to rear. However, we did learn many tricks for mixing and firing.
Oh gosh, another flashback. Before 1st BDE was tasked, Carson was a backward post (no parts, etc) and seemed to be going backwards as usual. One night some Arty LTs (Hayes?? was the ringleader and LT Sullivan, killed in CPT Vernon ambush) came to the Armor Complex (apt. house) with plenty of beer and a request... all of us were to go into the Springs (an off post town) to neighborhoods where they had certain caution signs posted...we must have taken 20 or so and gave to Hayes...all was forgotten in the alcoholic blur of LT's halcyon days....until one morning all the signs were planted around 5th Div HQ. For once, us butter bars were able to keep our mouths shut. Years later another player noted that these same signs might have been just as appropriate around Camp Red Devil.
HHC Commander was CPT Robinson, a Citadel graduate. He was, as were all of our Company CO's, a 2d tour survivor of 1st CAV DIV. Lang (Lane) was the signal officer... CPT Shuman was another BN staff officer. A popular war story at the time, although probably not true, had him WIA in his bunker by a crossbow arrow when, upon returning from a shower, the rat ambush party mistook the calf of his leg for a rat as he came down the stairs. He returned later I believe (just cut muscle).
Flame Platoon SGT was named Fowler & other SGT was Hester. (One of the draftees explained to Hester who explained to me that pumping compressed air from our refuelers into gasoline - before we mixed it into napalm - would lower temperature of gas to approx. 68 degrees- so we never lacked for cold sodas or beer if one could stand the smell- the ingenuity of the American soldier still amazes me)
We had our tracks at Carson so they were at Wunder Beach when we arrived. It was there that I got a SEABEE unit to place a metal plate over the air tanks on the throwers and we moved the napalm tanks to the sides so that I could place 2 or 3 men in rear for our own track protection (wanted to get M 60 mounts but was never able to). I still don't know if this was a good idea or just a way to get more men endangered or killed.
We immediately went to the field with one of the companies and leaguered first day at the site that was to become Red Devil. The CO lowered ramp and all platoon leaders met to plan fields of fire. KABOOM, either a Cong or old French mine exploded just under drivers compartment (empty). As I was sliding across the dirt I thought to myself "This is gonna be a loooong fucking year". Zigging, zagging and walking rather unsteadily back to my platoon I can still see the men laughing at my crooked course. It must have been funny but sure was disconcerting to me.
We then went west. There was the night when the Company CO was sure the tracked noise we heard to the north was an NVA tank. (Editorial note: The "hearing" of NVA tanks occurred more than once. I too "heard" them. Whether NVA or the echoes of a distant sound, they sure were scary during a dark night.) I'll try and remember if we were with B or C (don't think it was A with CPT Vernon) but all we had was M 113's & two Flames (no M48's). The plan (with which I was not enthused) was to circle the tank, if it approached, with the flame tracks & destroy it. Thankfully the sound disappeared. I believe this incident occurred before we went to Camp Carroll (where I know we were on 10 Aug 68 my promotion date) but might have been right after Camp Carroll. I do know we were west of Quang Tri. At Carroll, two flame tracks were on perimeter defense and two at the bridge below the Rockpile where we took some sniper fire at nights. Had one man WIA in an ambush.
We subsequently deployed to C2 & began operations. I believe C 1/77 (commanded by, as I recall, "Mad" Arty McGowan) came to us and B 1/61 (commanded by Jack Langston) went to 1/77. Most operations were west of C2 but I know I also went NE of C2. Normal operations were two flame tracks with a heavy force and the other two either based or with another company. I know of no operation where flame tracks ever fired in midst of hostilities. We normally were tucked in close to the command track.
We then switched firebases with 1/11 and went to Con Thien (A4). Our Bunker was in NW corner near the gate and any rockets fired normally came over us aimed for TOC and hospital bunker. Most operations I participated in were to the north (but not quite to the river) and east and NE of Con Thien. One operation (mech.) mostly east and a little north of A4 involved significant contact by a tank platoon with them buttoning up & shooting gooks off of each other and having Air Force close support. The flame platoon was with HQ element maybe 200 meters south of fighting and only heard radio transmissions. We lost tracks on two or three tanks that day due to mines (one towed tank hit a 2d mine and blew off other track- took two tanks & retriever to pull it out of area) This was a morning engagement and all returned to base that night. After that most operations continued north of A4- one time we had to button up (three of us cramped between the air tanks and overhead cover on the flame track-was suspenseful) due to a fairly heavy mortar attack.
Every day, though, we attacked the garbage dump with flame tracks.
At this time, I believe the planning developed to surprise the NVA by leaving tracks at A4 with a track diversion east and 1/61 going north and attacking dismounted to the east. This, I believe, was Operation Rich with its subsequent success in surprising the NVA within the DMZ. It was here that Dave Merrell (Recon Plt Ldr and my best friend in unit) was killed along with his RTO. LTC Wheeler dispatched me down to Red Devil to assist in Merrell's body transfer and it was there that I learned of Mother's death and was sent on emergency leave. When I returned to Nam the unit was at Sharon. The flame platoon had a new LT (Can't remember his name but I remember him as being stocky and quite good). He designed a flag for the platoon. I became HHC XO. Company CO was CPT Robinson (Sam??) He later was infused to 3d Bde 101 at Evans. I followed him to 101 but was in a different unit of the 3d Bde (2/506).
On my first night back we lucked out. There was a dug out bowl for movies with a barber shop at end and the screen was on back. I believe it was the barber who must have counted off yardage as 4 mortar shells came in simultaneously but all hit in front of the barber shop and not in back where all troops were within a kill zone. I remained HHC XO and don't remember much except unit patrolling the area and expending all of our flares on New Years Eve & watching the same pyrotechnic shows from many other firebases. I believe Flame Platoon was mostly on morning road sweeps during this time. I was infused to the 101st in Feb just down the road at Camp Evans.
I subsequently learned from Sgt. Lindaman (Linderman??) the Plt Sgt. of Recon that Sgt. Smith (my track commander when I was on flame) was killed by a mine (Mar or Apr '69) under his track which I believe was empty of napalm but would still have considerable air in tanks.
Now comes the part I've never shared with anyone in the unit. Outside and south of Evans were some hedgerows (heavily booby-trapped) which were tearing up our units. We'd had success using flame tracks up north to cook off booby traps, so I suggested that the flame platoon be brought south to assist. The first day, where I rode with platoon, we had success in spraying the rows & getting several secondary explosions. On the 2d day, I was at Evans when a huge explosion, fireball, and smoke cloud erupted. I threw up knowing what happened. Even though the flame track was following in tracks of a tank, they were on same road as day before...maybe it was a pressure mine but probably command detonated & was believed to be a 105 or bigger mine. The crew of three (none of whom were from original platoon) were killed instantly. I know I was trying to help my new unit and screwed my original platoon.
To sum up, during my time with flame we didn't accomplish anything of note except stay alive and unwounded. I've often wondered though if flame tracks could have decimated the ambush of CPT Vernon's track and believe we would have, had we been out on that mission.
I always have thought that the 5th Mech had the greatest leadership at the company commander level and above (LT's are LT's & I shudder to think of how many stupid decisions I must have made). I thought the world of LTC. Wheeler, Maj. Rodriquez XO and Maj. Powell the S3...all tremendous officers who trained us as well as possible.
I survived by luck and I don't think at first the NVA knew what the flames were, but after first contact we were sure they'd be looking for us and that was the misfortune for subsequent platoon leaders. Remember (I think Col. Wheeler would verify this) when we arrived the NVA had been fighting Marines and weren't ready for the massive firepower of the 1/61. As a point of interest there were 1/4 ton jeeps at C2, at least when I was there. The TOE for Flame included a jeep for the platoon leader but Col Wheeler appropriated it for HQ (we didn't need it). The Flame Platoon, being almost all tanker MOS from TOE (I was armor), were also thieves. They liberated a Marine jeep but Col. Wheeler took that for BN also. I know not if they remained but for a while there was quite a motor pool of vehicles inside the firebase.
I must end with another rat story: I have great respect for the Marines but not their hygiene or resupply. When we arrived at A4 rats were, as you know, quite plentiful but were suckers for Ju Ju fruits. One night in darkness in our bunker a trap sprung & flashlights poured on. Here was a rat big enough to join a cat fight and the trap was insufficient to break his back...as he scurried off trap and all. We watched stunned until a troop grabbed a marking crayon & wrote on the wall: Ju Ju Fruits 11 - Rats 1. The mighty rodent was paroled.
And so was I too paroled. I left Viet Nam in July '69 and went back to Stanford for an MBA...went into a small business (moving & storage) which I sold later and gravitated into teaching (College level econ & finance & ass'd business) in Sierra Vista, AZ.
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