The a-gunner’s job is to carry the bulk of the ammunition for the gunner, who carried the 23-pound M-60 machine gun, accessories and a ready load of ammo. If I remember correctly, Chon carried 300 rounds — a 100-round belt in the gun and two 100-round, disintegrating link belts looped around his body, ready for firing. He looked like Pancho Villa.
Chon also carried the cleaning kit, extra barrel and a cartridge case extractor as well as his personal gear. He carried a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol in addition to the M-60.
I carried 800 rounds of machine gun ammo. Each 100-round belt came in a 4×5-inch cardboard box that was about six inches tall and weighed about eight pounds. Each box came in a green cloth bag with a carrying strap, but we carried them another way.
We threw away the carrying bag and slipped two cardboard boxes into the two pockets of an empty claymore bag. So instead of hanging eight 100-round ammo boxes around me, I carried four 200-round ammo bags.
When “saddling up” to move out, I first put on my trousers, utility jacket and jungle boots. My pistol belt was next with two canteens and my poncho liner attached. Then came my flak jacket. I carried my personal gear in a corpsman’s Unit One bag so that went on next hanging in the small of my back.
Then I carefully slipped the strap of one 200-round bag around my neck and positioned it to hang behind my left hip. I hung the next bag behind my right hip, another in front of my left hip and the last in front of my right hip. I hung my ammo bags the same way every time, so I knew how to take them off without entangling the straps.
The front cargo pockets of my flak jacket each held seven M-16 magazines and another seven hung around my neck in a bandolier for a total of 21 (and one more in my rifle).
I carried a claymore mine, hellbox and wires in another bag hung around my neck. Then I stuck a couple of grenades and a popup flare or two in the cargo pockets of my trousers. I usually found room somewhere for a can of C-ration peaches, and I topped off with a steel helmet. My M-16 I carried in my hands.
That load totaled around 140 pounds. Add the 175 pounds I weighed naked and I threatened destruction to footbridges and paddy dikes. I walked like an elephant and left deep footprints. Kneeling or lying down was a slow, careful process. I was also careful getting back up. A couple of times I got “turtled,” pinned down on my back by the weight. Chon had to pull me up steep banks, often with somebody pushing from behind. After a few minutes on the move, my clothes were always soaked with sweat.
My job was to shadow Chon everywhere he went. When the shit hit the fan, I flopped down to the left of his machine gun, guiding the ammo belt into the feed port as he fired. When the ammo belt got short I clipped a fresh belt on the end of the old one so he could keep firing. In a good fight, my load decreased by many pounds.
Unfortunately for me, Chon was very careful not to fire the gun without need. One night early in my tour I remember lying beside Chon’s gun as a few VC probing shots zipped overhead. I whispered at Chon that we should open fire. Not one to waste words, he told me to shut up. The next day he explained the VC often fired random shots, trying to get the CAP to reveal our location by returning fire. And Chon said he held his fire until needed because once he opened up, the gun tended to attract a lot of VC fire. So I rarely got to lighten my load.
I was A-gunner for Chon for a couple of months, briefly carried the gun myself, then was A-gunner for R.D. “Erp” Erpelding for a few weeks. In one fight when I was Erp’s A-gunner, we fired several 100-round belts. My load got temporarily lighter, but the gun’s hammering left me deaf in my right ear for three days.
One time Chon and I were lying on either side of the machine gun in a night position. Directly in front of us was a thin treeline of bamboo and undergrowth. Beyond that was more bamboo, trees and mixed scrub. One or two VC were moving around nearby, firing occasional probing shots. The whole CAP laid there in our perimeter, listening carefully for any noise from the pitch blackness. Finally, our sergeant grew impatient. He stood up and whispered he was going to throw a grenade.
We heard the sergeant wind up and let fly – and instantly heard the grenade “THUNK!” into the stand of bamboo only six feet in front of us. Chon and I said, “OH SHIT!” in unison, and dug our faces into the dirt, holding our helmets on our heads with both hands. I wanted to climb inside my steel pot. The sergeant flopped down behind us.
Somewhere in front of us was a live grenade, maybe only a couple of feet away. The next five seconds were the longest in my life, and then there was a huge “BAM!” just the other side of the bamboo. Dirt, bamboo pieces and hot shrapnel pattered down all around, but we were untouched. I heard Chon calling the sergeant every foul name he could think of. That’s the only time in Vietnam I was glad to have a helmet.
Ernesto Rivas was Chon’s closest buddy in CAP 2-7-2. Both Chicanos, they piled their gear side-by-side in our day sites and spent most of their spare time together. Rivas was as witty and talkative as Chon was quiet. I remember many times hearing Rivas rattle away in Spanish for minutes at a time, then hearing Chon reply with a couple of quiet words before Rivas began rattling away again. Both of them lived to rotate home.
Posted on Aug. 27, 1999