Far from his wife and newborn, John Butler kept finding himself in the battlefield with one set of instructions: "Find the bastards, and pile on."
Not wearing protective gear around artillery can cause severe hearing loss. As a veteran forward artillery officer in Vietnam, John Butler can confirm this truism.
John stated, “You bet’cha, I have hearing problems. The 105 and 155 Howitzers were noisy enough, but the main culprit of hearing loss was the 177mm Long Tom. The blast was so powerful the tube had to be changed after firing 700 to 1,200 rounds, based on the number of zones used, ‘zones’ meaning the number of power bags placed in the tube. When a gun can hurl a 174 lb. projectile 28 or 30 miles it creates a heck of a boom.”
A graduate of Pittsburg State University in Kansas with a BA degree in Math and commissioned as a 2nd Lt from the ROTC program, the Army postponed John’s military obligation to allow completion of a Master’s Degree. “I was in the active reserves until I earned my Master’s Degree in math,” he said. “But I was on active duty by February of 1970.”
Sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for a 13-week Officer Basic Course, John’s talent in math funneled his assignment to field artillery. “I knew my next port-of-call would be Vietnam. With a very pregnant wife due with our first child at any moment, I had a lot of family matters to attend to. Then I received my orders: Germany.”
Readjusting mentally and materially for deployment to Germany, John finally left his wife and home for duty with the 3rd Army near Frankfurt. Settling into his new assignment, within 30 days John became a father plus received a new set of orders: Vietnam. “I can’t really explain how peeved I was,” he said. “But orders were orders. I went home, saw the wife and baby, resettled them and readjusted myself then caught the bird to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam by way of Anchorage and Japan. I still wasn’t a very happy camper.”
Sent to a small staging area north of Saigon, John was assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment as an Artillery Forward Observer. “My vehicle was an Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle (M-113). I had a driver and two M-60 machine gunners for protection. The 11th Cav’s motto best describes our mission, ‘Find the bastards, and pile on.’
Recalling one mission, “We were on a joint mission with other armored units sweeping through three villages when we hit the jackpot. We located guns, foodstuffs, supplies, even a motorcycle. When we finally received incoming our tanks (probably M-60s or M-48 Pattons) mowed down the nearby tree line with several Beehive rounds (Flechette darts, 8,000 per round). A couple of our guys got hit because we were in sort of a hook formation. One of my buddies took a flechette through his mouth. It knocked out one tooth on each side and took out a piece of his tongue. He lived, but I helped carry a grunt to the medevac that took a flechette through his temple. I don’t think he made it.”
Another mission, “We provided artillery for a land clearing engineering company. Bulldozers used a Rome Plow, so named because the plow was made in Rome, Georgia. The plows had sharp ends that stuck into trees so the dozers could uproot them. That’s the way they cleared jungle.”
The stand down: “We received orders to ‘stand down’ and return to the Saigon area. There we turned over our equipment to the ARVN soldiers but that wasn’t the end to my war.”
Sent North to I Corp, John joined the 2nd Battalion 94th Artillery outfit. He said, “The Operations Officer at Da Nang showed me my nest port-of call, the Laotian border just below the DMZ to provide support for the Lam Son 719 incursion. Lam Son was no picnic.”
Early in 1971, South Vietnamese forces crossed into southeastern Laos to disrupt or demolish the North Vietnamese supply camps and supply lines along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trial. The operation was called Lam Son 719. American ground forces did not participate; limited only to supporting roles in logistical, artillery, and air cover, including carpet bombing by B-52 bombers. Either due to inadequate planning or poor performance, perhaps both, the South Vietnamese were trounced by a determined enemy. American and South Vietnamese helicopter losses were horrendous: 168 destroyed with another 618 damaged.
John said, “Our Fire Direction HQ was situated in the same compound as the firing batteries, 105s, 155s, and 175mm Long Toms. The big guns fired day and night, they never stopped except to swap tubes. We had early model computers, but nothing like the computers of today. If the computers or generators failed, we got out the old trusty board and did the calculations by hand. We always calculated by hand when a conflict of coordinates popped up between the Fire Direction HQ and a forward observer.”
On base defense: “We protected our perimeter with two quad-50 trucks and a beast of a weapon called the Duster (M-42 twin-mounted 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns). Incoming was intermittent until the enemy placed high-caliber guns into mountain caves in Laos. Our Long Toms couldn’t reach them, but the ‘fast-movers’ (jets) finally took them out.”
“Bulldozers dug a pit for our fire directional command truck which was pretty much buried up to the top of the vehicle, doubly protected with sandbags and timbers. I was sitting there one night when suddenly we were covered with dirt by a horrible explosion. The breech ruptured on a Long Tom causing the gun to explode. Part of the pin penetrated the sandbags on one side of the command truck and lodged in the opposite sandbagged wall. It missed my head by inches. I still have that piece.”
Two soldiers were killed on top the Long Tom and two severely injured. The 175mm Long Tom accident was an infrequent incident, but as John noted, “We had a lot of injuries due to accidents, but that’s the nature of being around ‘stuff’ that blows up.”
John Butler chose not to dwell on specific, and sometimes unpleasant, incidents during his tour in Vietnam; rather, he chose to expand on his final comments.
“I did my duty; it never occurred to me to avoid that duty. But I recall coming home and finding friends who had moved on to make a life for themselves, and there I was in the Twilight Zone. I still struggle from experiencing the disdain and rejection by the people of this country. It hurt then; it still hurts now.”
“Yes, I was in combat, but my problems stem from the rejection by my own countrymen, and not from the tragic events I experienced in Nam. I was reluctant to join veterans groups for a long time. I didn’t want to just sit around swapping war stories, but recently things have changed. I joined the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association and found myself in the middle of men like me, patriotic and unashamed for doing what we had to do. That, my brother, is therapeutic.”
John worked in the computer industry for 25 years. He now operates a family private care consulting firm for senior adults.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.