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Posted: November 1, 2012 7:58 p.m.

Relying on ‘Thumper’

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Australian troops in Vietnam referred to the weapon as the "Wombat Gun." The American boys, most likely movie alumni of Walt Disney's "Bambi," nicknamed the weapon "Thumper" for making much the same hollow sound as the cute fictional rabbit thumping the ground with its left hind foot. Other nicknames included Thump-Gun, Bloop Tube and Blooper. Regardless of nickname, the soldiers who carrier the single-shot, break-action, shoulder-fired M79 grenade launcher were all called Grenadiers.

Born in the mill town of Milstead in 1947, lifelong Rockdale resident Galen Foster said, "My dad and grandma worked the Mill and the Foster clan pretty much thought Elm Street belonged to us." The 1965 graduate of Rockdale High School worked for C&D Battery on Lithonia Industrial Boulevard until he turned 19. He said, "Six days after my 19th birthday, I was drafted and took my eight-week basic training at Fort Benning." After a short leave to visit his folks, Foster reported to Ft. Polk, La., for nine weeks of advanced infantry training.

"Jungle Land" at Ft. Polk mimicked Vietnam with villages, hot muggy weather and swamps. Trained on seven different weapons systems, Foster grasped the obvious. "We knew our next port-of-call was Vietnam and they made that point perfectly clear."

September 1966, War Zone C - Foster links up with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in Tay Ninh Province. He said, "The unit recently suffered 24 killed or wounded from a Chinese Claymore mine which included the Grenadier, so I ended up with an M79 grenade launcher plus a .45 automatic for close-quarters protection. I trusted the "Thumper" but I wasn't too excited about the .45."

Foster received his baptism under fire on his first mission. He said, "We were on patrol and crossing a clearing in twos. An 18-year-old kid was right in front of me and immediately stepped on a mine that blew off his foot. The blast threw us both back into the tree line which possibly saved our lives because the Viet Cong opened up with everything they had."

Luckily, the medic was still in the tree line. "The wounded kid received attention within seconds," Foster said. "I couldn't hear a darn thing, and still have hearing problems, but I was able to recover and bloop grenades at the enemy." The fight lasted about 30 minutes. "We called in jets to hit VC positions," Foster said. "The air support was so close, dirt was thrown on us from the exploding bombs."

The following day, Foster pulled a duty he and most soldiers despised in Vietnam; escorting the news media to the recent battlefield. "They took photos of the kid's boot that was still there," Foster said softly. "We hated that; no respect for what the kid went through, just another story for their papers."

Their base camp outside of Tay Ninh received mortars regularly. "Our base camp was so new we didn't have bunkers yet," Foster said. "We had wooden floors in our tents and just had to ‘hit the wood' sort to speak and cover ourselves with a duffel bag or two."

Foster saw action in three major campaigns during his one year tour: Operation Cedar Falls, Junction City, and Attleboro, all of historic recognition. He recalled many surprises by a crafty enemy. "We found miles and miles of tunnels, caches filled with weapons, underground printing presses and a well-equipped hospital under tons of logs and dirt. The hospital was so well protected I don't know if a direct hit would have destroyed it."

During one campaign, Foster wrote the ‘final letter' to his parents. "Thank the Good Lord that letter never had to be mailed," he said. Foster relied heavily on "Thumper" to save lives, with accuracy and firepower. "Grenadiers stopped using the site after a few engagements. We relied on our experience and the ‘feel' of the weapon." When asked how skilled he became, Foster said, "I could drop a 40mm round in your back pocket from 300 yards."

Foster finished his tour of duty at Chu Lai, near the huge Marine base at DaNang. "They'd been getting a lot of action near DaNang so we were transferred to Chu Lai. I liked the Marines; they had fresh cold milk in their chow hall. The only milk we ever found in Tay Ninh was in the VC tunnels. The Viet Cong had milk and we didn't. Sorta strange."

After Vietnam, Foster completed his military service with the honor guard at Ft. Benning. "That was great duty," he said. "We even performed for President Johnson." Foster also had a bit part in John Wayne's epic film, "The Green Berets," which was partially filmed at Ft. Benning. "And, yes," he said without being asked. "The Duke really was a big man. And a good guy."

Foster actually married ‘the girl next door,' Brenda Phillips. "Yep, she lived next door to me, we went to kindergarten together and we've spent the last 44 years as husband and wife. She's been my strength since Nam."

Sensitive war memories were discussed during Foster's interview; most have gone unrecorded. Much of the dialogue remained between the two aging veterans in the room, not a writer or a soldier, just two men who knew war and for the most part would like to forget it.

His final thoughts: "I remember sitting in the middle of a field on Christmas Eve, 1966. We had set up an ambush. The next day, we would celebrate the birth of Christ, yet the night before we were waiting to kill somebody. Well, God got me through it and I live for him. We all should."

 

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