Friendly fire could be personal or impersonal; a single bullet from a guy you knew like a brother or a hail of shells from a distant battery that had no idea you existed. You could die from malice or because a sleepy artillery officer forgot to carry the ‘2.’
One of the biggest dangers we faced was re-entering the CAP perimeter after a night-time patrol, known first as “killer teams” and later, the more politically correct “security patrols.”
We sent out four- or five-man killer teams to roam our ville at night looking for Charlie, just like our daytime patrols. Charlie was much more likely to be found at night, but the scariest part of most night patrols was re-entering the CAP’s night position.
The KT leader would plan a route through the ville and estimate a return time so the rest of the CAP knew when to expect them. But the returning KT was still required to walk closer and closer to the CAP perimeter, waiting for the man on watch to see them. That was the moment of maximum danger, when the watchstander saw movement and had a few seconds to decide whether he was looking at Marines or VC.
Sometimes KTs carried a radio so they could call ahead and say, “We’re coming in.” Sometimes they would fire a green or red star cluster to announce their arrival. Both methods had disadvantages and KT leaders often decided not to use them.
I know of two Marines killed by friendly fire while leading KTs. On July 6, 1970, a KT was returning to the CAP 2-7-4 night position. A PF sleeping on watch awoke suddenly to see a shadow in front of him. He fired a burst that killed the point man, John Sievers of Gunnison, Colo., and wounded Angel Washington of San Antonio, Texas.
Ronnie Ross of CAP 2-7-10 was mortally wounded under similar circumstances, though many suspect his death was murder rather than an accident. He had argued with the PF officer who shot him. The PF was transferred and the incident hushed up to avoid a complete break in relations with the South Vietnamese.
Fearing such incidents, CAP 2-7-2 killer teams always re-entered our night site through a Marine watch position. It was not unusual for PFs to daydream or fall asleep while standing watch, and they tended to open fire when startled.
Friendly artillery fire was a lot more random, impersonal and potentially destructive. I escaped injury three times from friendly shells.
The first time, CAP 2-7-2 was in a night position in the grave mounds on the north side of the “Island.” I was standing watch alone, early on a quiet, starry morning. I could hear an artillery battery firing far off to the west, then it fell silent. About five minutes later I heard a single, distant ‘boom’ from that direction and wondered what it was.
Seconds later I heard the rushing sound of an incoming shell and I ducked down beside a grave mound. The shell, probably a 105mm, blew up barely 50 yards away. I quickly got on the radio to CACO 2-7, shouting, “CHECK FIRE! CHECK FIRE!” because one shell was often the prelude to a barrage. The radio operator at 2-7 checked and told me the artillery bases within range all claimed they had not fired.
No more shells landed, so the CAP soon went back to sleep. We never learned who fired the shell although we knew there were 105mm batteries and a tank base in the area west of us.
Another time, CAP 2-7-2 was on the move at maybe 9 p.m. We were strung out in single file, walking up a path to the north side of the Island near a house we called the Flower Garden. Suddenly there came the familiar ripping sound of an incoming shell. This one hit the ground about 50 feet to the right of our file, but didn’t explode. We all froze. Then came a loud “POP” and a parachute flare was flung out of the hole made by the shell. It caught in a banana tree and began burning brightly.
Thirty seconds later another shell came screaming towards us on a low arc from the north. This one spat out its flare about 100 feet above ground, then crashed into the roof of the Flower Garden on our left. Every man in the CAP had the same thought, “SHIT, we’re bracketed!”
I urgently radioed CACO 2-7 and asked if they were firing illumination with their 81mm mortars. The radio man said, yes, they were firing a mission for CAP 2-7-10.
“Well your FUCKING flares are landing on our HEADS!” I shouted, as another shell plowed into the brick courtyard of the Flower Garden. “Somebody is gonna get KILLED!”
Despite eyewitness testimony, the CACO radio man assured me that their mortar fire couldn’t be hitting us, because we were OUT OF RANGE! He also chided me for using foul language on the tactical net. I pleaded with him to “check fire” and call CAP 2-7-10. Another 81mm shell landed in the rice paddy in front of our column, spitting out its flare. By now there were flares burning all around us. We were still strung out on the trail, kneeling or flat on our faces. Another shell landed to our right, and that was the last.
The CACO radio man came back on the net and admitted the illumination they were firing never arrived in the skies over CAP 2-7-10, but he still would not admit their shells were falling on CAP 2-7-2. Out of range, end of story. I was a little upset and our actual “Willie” Williams was beside me by then shouting, “What the FUCK! is going on!?”
Willie took the handset and shared a few of his thoughts with CACO 2-7, and that was pretty much the end of it. I was shaking a little when we moved out again. Even though illumination shells don’t explode, you can get hurt if a 15-pound chunk of metal hits you going 1,000 feet per second.
There were other dicey moments when we called for illumination. One time we got 155mm illumination from a battery near Hoi An. Those babies popped right overhead. The night was so quiet you could hear the flares hissing a thousand feet overhead, and you could hear the empties tumbling down with a soft “whoo-Whoo-WHoo-WHOO” until they hit the earth with a 40-pound THUD!
Finally there was the incident of the drunken Army advisors. It was December, I think, during the rainy season. I remember I was getting short. I was leading a patrol of five or six men around midnight near “The Farm” in the western part of our ville. Once again we were strung out single file, but this time I was walking point. I heard the distinctive sound of a mortar firing at the ARVN compound guarding the bridge over the Thanh Quit River. It was the old Delta 1 compound.
I paid little attention because our ville was a restricted fire zone. Anybody firing into our area was supposed to call CAP 2-7-2 and ask permission. Then a mortar shell came hissing earthward. We all hit the dirt as the high explosive shell blew up about 50 yards away. I grabbed our radio, switched the frequency and called the U.S. Army advisors based at the ARVN compound.
“Check fire on your mortar,” I told the Army man on the radio, “You’re hitting near us.”
Another mortar shell landed. This one was closer.
“How close was that last one?” the Army man asked.
“About 35 yards,” I replied.
“Don’t worry,” the advisor advised, “The killing radius for a 60mm is only 15 yards.”
I started cursing angrily and 7th Co. commander Capt. Bob Mallard came on the frequency and told me to shut up and get off the net. Then HE started cursing the Army advisor and demanding he cease fire. No more shells fell. I got off the Army freq to call CAP 2-7-2 and missed the rest of the conversation.
I heard later that the Army major assigned to the ARVN compound was entertaining a visiting major when they got drunk and decided to fire a little high explosive to liven up the evening. I also heard the major was reprimanded and transferred, but I don’t know if that’s true.