By Roch Thornton, CAP 2-7-2, 1970
The death of Dan Gallagher has always symbolized for me the horrible waste of the Vietnam War – or any war. Dan was a college graduate who majored in pre-med. He was engaged to be married and his future was bright. Then he wound up in the Marines and CAP 2-7-2, where he was killed on Sept. 10, 1970.
For years, the events of that day occasionally woke me from a troubled sleep, whispering call signs and casualty estimates. That was our worst day in the year I was in CAP 2, with two killed and five wounded.
Daysite at “The Balcony”
CAP 2 spent that day at a house nicknamed “The Balcony” in an area we called “The Island,” at approximately grid coordinates BT 035625. I’m not sure why, but we seldom stayed at that particular house. I vaguely remember that access to the house was limited compared with other places we liked. I also recall that our RFs spent the day at another house nearby.
The two-story masonry house was L-shaped, with a covered porch and a brick-paved courtyard. During the day most of us stacked our gear on the porch, while others piled theirs in the courtyard. I had piled my gear on the porch next to Dan Gallagher, who had been with CAP 2 about a month.
I was carrying the PRC-25 radio at that time, and I took the job seriously — carefully monitoring radio traffic, memorizing my frequencies and making sure we always had a fresh battery. As the sun began to go down that day, the word was passed to “saddle up” and, for some reason, I was the first man ready to go. I walked out of the courtyard and around the corner of the house to make my radio checks away from the racket of 11 Marines talking and putting on their gear.
I called CACO 2-7 for a radio check and then stood resting, checking my gear and waiting for the rest of the team. I saw the first of our RFs begin to appear on the wide dirt pathway behind the house. Various members of my Bravo team came around the wall and joined me.
A scene from hell
Then without warning, a huge explosion burst from the courtyard. I saw an orange flash from the corner of my eye, followed by a wave of smoke and dust that curled over and around the house wall. Small pieces of blast debris pattered around me like raindrops and I heard a low moans and cries of pain. Immediately I radioed CACO 2-7, requested an emergency medevac and estimated four wounded. Then I rushed around the corner into a hellish scene.
Dust and smoke from the blast still hung in the air along with a strong smell of high explosive and burning. At first it seemed every man was down, some lying still, some groaning and moving on the ground. Torn and twisted fragments of clothing, equipment and metal littered the courtyard. Some survivors were under cover, facing outward with their weapons ready, looking for the source of the “attack.” Others were scrambling to help the wounded. I radioed CACO 2-7 and doubled my casualty estimate.
Dan Gallagher was killed instantly, blown apart. J.J. Arteaga was unconscious, with multiple fragmentation wounds to the head, and died very quickly. The wounded were Dwight L. Motley, Denny Erpelding, two new Marines whose names were Frank Pizz and Art “Chubby” Yelder, and our Kit Carson Scout, Gia. Left untouched were me, Nelson Kilmister, “Willie” Williams, “Country” Roach, “Hucklebuck” Prock, “R.J.” Carrier, “Mac” McIntyre and Ken Duncan. Our corpsman, “Doc” Doggett was gone, staying at CACO 2-7 for the night, and Al “Zorro” Zarosinski was on Stateside leave due to a death in his family.
Confusion in the dark
The next half hour was chaotic as we treated the wounded and built a defensive perimeter with our RFs. I was on the radio non-stop, adjusting artillery illumination, talking to Dustoff choppers, working with CACO 2-7 and walking the perimeter to make sure the reaction force from CAP 2-7-4 could approach us without getting shot by nervous RFs. Everyone who was in the courtyard was half deaf from the blast and we had to shout to be heard. Darkness added to the confusion and at one point, some say, Charlie contributed a few rounds of rifle fire from a tree line across the rice paddies to the south.
Once I remember kneeling and speaking to Denny “Erp” Erpelding of Fort Wayne, Ind., badly wounded and covered with blood, but conscious. By that time it was pitch dark except for the 155mm parachute flares swinging their way down. I remember “Erp’s” bloody face looked like it was covered with black oil in the bright orange light of the flares. Erp was “shocky,” but still speaking coherently. I think I asked how he was doing and he replied that he was “fine,” or words to that effect.
Dusting off the dead and wounded
I have nothing but praise for the pilots and crew of the Army Dustoff choppers that came for our dead and wounded. The situation was very confused when the first chopper arrived overhead. The source of the initial explosion was unknown and our RFs were firing occasional random shots and bursts of rifle fire. I was unable to tell the unarmed Dustoffs for certain whether we were taking incoming fire, but advised them to watch the treeline 50 meters across the paddy to the south. The choppers had to land in the rice paddy between us and that treeline.
Everybody was busy when the Dustoff pilot told me to mark the LZ, so I went out into the flooded paddy, kneeling in the water to mark the zone with a strobe. A minute later the first Huey almost landed on top of me, and his rotors chopped off my whip antenna about three feet above my head. The CAP 2 survivors were well organized by then and raced out to the chopper, carrying our dead and wounded in ponchos. Loading took less than a minute and the Huey revved up as we scrambled clear. Then as the Dustoff chopper tilted to lift off, one poncho-wrapped bundle fell from the open side of the Huey into the rice paddy — the remains of Dan Gallagher.
A couple of Marines gathered Dan back into a poncho while I was talking with a second inbound Dustoff chopper. Then I learned that one wounded man, Motley, was still on the ground. I told the second Dustoff we had another “priority” medevac and went out again to mark the LZ. Dan’s remains were put on the second chopper and Motley walked to the bird on his own. I was later scolded for calling a “priority” medevac for a KIA and a man who could walk. My defense; head wounds are always at least a “priority” medevac, and Dwight had several small frag wounds in his head.
Death by LAAW
I remember bits and pieces about the rest of that night. Tracers or parachute flares set the thatched roof of a house on fire in the treeline south of the LZ. We watched as villagers fought the blaze, preoccupied with our own problems. After the Dustoffs left, we gathered our gear and moved to another spot on the Island for the night, along with the reaction force from CAP 2-7-4.
Ironically, CAP 2-7-2 was not decimated by the Viet Cong or NVA, but by one of our own weapons.
Because many M-79 grenades were scattered around the courtyard afterwards, it was first thought the explosion occurred in a bag full of blooper rounds. That theory was reported to CACO 2-7 and relayed up the chain of command. We later determined the source of the deadly blast was a M-72 LAAW (Light Assault Anti-tank Weapon) carried by Dan Gallagher. Judging by the massive damage to his body, he was either holding the rocket, or had it slung over his shoulder when it detonated.
We were all baffled by the idea that a LAAW could explode spontaneously. It was a 66mm high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rocket with a warhead containing eight ounces of octol. The rocket came in a collapsible launching tube that was half aluminum, half fiberglass. You had to remove the end covers, slide the halves apart and complete a complicated series of actions to fire a LAAW, and none of those actions preceded the blast at CAP 2. The only people who might have seen more were dead or badly wounded.
An unsolved mystery
Eventually we were told to destroy all our “old” LAAWs, or send them to CACO 2-7 on the resupply truck. We were also instructed not to leave LAAWs sitting all day in the sun, for fear the sun’s baking heat contributed to the LAAW explosion. Unfortunately for that theory, Dan’s LAAWs sat in the shade all that last day, with the rest of his gear. As far as I know, nobody ever learned what combination of design or manufacturing flaws, or handling, caused that LAAW to explode.
There was speculation for awhile that Dan’s LAAW had somehow been boobytrapped. That theory faded when people realized how difficult, if not impossible, it would have been to rig a LAAW to explode. Dan’s gear sat all day in full view of any Marine who cared to glance that way. None of the survivors remembered anyone but Dan going near his equipment.
Of the five men wounded that night, only Gia, our Kit Carson Scout, ever returned to CAP 2-7-2. It was at least the second time he was wounded.
Visiting Erp at 1st Med Bn
A day or two later, Ken Duncan and I and a third Marine (probably Nelson Kilmister or Dennis Prock) hitchhiked to Danang to visit Denny Erpelding in the 1st Med Battalion hospital. It still surprises me that three dusty grunts were allowed into a ward full of seriously wounded men.
Erp was laid out on his back on a narrow bed or gurney, nearly naked and covered with bandages. Some of his minor wounds lay exposed, most with a few stitches swabbed with betadine closing a bloody rip. Tubes were inserted in several places and the left side of his head was shaved. His face was swollen until he was barely recognizable. Erp’s worst wound was in his thigh (his right?), which was completely covered in bandages.
After initial greetings, I think it was our humorist Ken Duncan who said, “Well, Erp, you look like shit!” We all started laughing, including Erp, between stifled moans, who replied something like, “Shut up. You’re going to kill me.” We talked for a few minutes and then were ushered out, in a very sober mood. Shortly afterward, Erp was flown out of Vietnam for more treatment elsewhere. Years later I learned he spent nine months in various hospitals, undergoing several operations.
Our medical corpsman, “Doc” Doggett was in the radio bunker at CACO 2-7 that night, listening to events at CAP 2. He was at company headquarters for one-night R&R and was horrified to find himself miles from where he was needed. As it happened, nothing could have saved the two KIAs, and the wounded all survived the semi-skilled treatment they got from us. But CACO 2-7 corpsmen were never again allowed to leave their CAPs overnight unless another corpsman was found to take their place.
I described the events of Sept. 10, 1970 in two letters to my parents. The incident also triggered a number of events I will describe in the following articles and documents.
Instructions for firing the M-72
Operation: Check the sight setting. Remove the rear cover retaining
pin. Rotate the rear cover downward, allowing the sling assembly (including
the front cover) to fall free. Then grasp the bail handle and extend the
launcher by pulling to the rear until the detent locks the inner tube in
position. Remove the rear safety pin and place the launcher on the shoulder.
Push forward on the trigger safety until it reaches the release position.
Aim the launcher. Depress the trigger bar to fire the rocket.