B Battery Stories

The 1/92nd Field Artillery
Association - Vietnam

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Humor in a Near Death Experience

by (Lt.) Henry Hickman

Occasionally, even in an armed conflict, there is humor in being wounded.


   One form of entertainment that I have always enjoyed is the old, silent, black and white comedies such as Keaton and Chaplin. The top of the list falls to the Keystone Cops. It seems that in every episode, at least once, there's someone who falls or is knocked into a mud hole. What tickles my funny bone is the manner in which they end up in the hole. But funnier yet is that stupid expression on the individuals face as he is spitting mud out. Unbeknownst to me at the end of February 1968, I would find myself in a similar situation, but the hole I ended up in did not have mud in it.

   At the end of December, 1967, the artillery unit that I was stationed with was moved to a Fire Support Base fourteen (14) kilometers west-southwest of Dak To, Vietnam. This base was called LZ Dogbone. When viewed from the air you could see how it got its name. Two bald, dirt knolls with a saddle in between situated on a valley plateau between two mountain ranges, due east and west. Three kilometers west of the base, the plateau plunged into a deep valley that butted up to the west range of mountains. The infantry perimeter around the bse was shaped just like the dog biscuit you see advertised on TV or on the grocers shelves, hence the name.

   They placed our firing battery on the western knoll and it took us a couple of days to finally get settled in. During those two days, things were quiet and there wasn't any enemy action going on around us. I had just finished a book about the French defeat by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu back in the 1950's, this place reminded me of the same position the French had been in, in a valley with mountains basically all around. Needlesss to say, this did not give me a very comforting feeling. The closest friendlies were fourteen (14) kilometers away and it was just us, in the artillery and one (1) infantry company in this position.

   The third day fortified my "gut" feelings; about two (2) in the afternoon, three (3) mortar rounds hit the fire base, luckily no one got hurt. One thing about mortar rounds is that when they hit the ground and explode, they leave a pattern that will give you a general idea as to the direction they came from. By the time we left this base, we had fired enough artillery rounds to almost denude this forest from due west to due south, three kilometers out.

   As it got nearer to the Chinese New Year (Tet) the mortar attacks became more frequent and sometimes there was more than one a day. This was not a great moral builder for any of us. We couldn't understand why they had put us in this position, the infantry hardly left the fire base on sweeps, and then they only went out a couple of kilometers and came back to the base. This basically left the area around us free for the enemy to come and go as he pleased. To this day it still baffles me as to why they ever put us in that position. During our whole stay there, not one major ground action by American or Vietnamese forces took place in or around the area that would be covered by our artillery howitzers. In the ocurse of this stay we had on kid killed (Bob Alexander) and five wounded, for what?

   Finally on the evening of February 28th a radio message came in that we would be leaving this place and going back to Dak To to convoy back to base camp for a month, we had been in the field for nine (9) months. You can't know just how happy we were to get that message. This place had been a "Hell Hole", dirty, mortar attacks and a feeling of despair, "God" I was glad to be leaving it. The only good thing about it was that we hadn't had the experience of a ground attack by enemy infantry.

   The next morning aobut 0800hrs the choppers started coming in to pick up personnel and our howitzers. With our equipment and the altitude that we were at, it usually took almost six (6) hours to completely get us moved off of a fire base. Because this base was totally void of vegetation, we wore gas masks so we could keep the flying dirt and debris out of our eyes that was churned up every time a chopper hovered to pick up something. Everytime a chopper whould hover, mortar rounds would hit the base, so this really created more havoc and of course really created adrenaline flow. And each time you hit the ground and swore thinking to yourself, "God, get me off this blankety blank place".

     At last, about 1 pm a chopper came in to pick up the last howitzer. I and my radio operator (I think it was Grasso from Seattle) were standing on the north east portion of the west knoll as the chopper lifted up this howitzer and left, again mortar rounds. I told the operator to get his stuff and get over to the other knowll so we could get on another chopper to get out of there. As he headed down the saddle I took off my gas mask and put it in its case. I started to turn to go pick up my stuff and it felt like someone with a big foot kicked me from the rear. The next thing I remember is that I'm spread eagle face down in a hole, spitting grit and dirt out of my mouth. My left arm is munb and as I looked at my elbow, its scraped up, so I figured I'd hit my "crazy bone" when I hit the ground. I looked back over my shoulder and about fifteen feet behind me is a hole (mortar round) still smoking. About then, Armstrong a kid in the ammo section jumped in the hole with me. His eyes were big as saucers, and fear was written all over his face. He asked me if I was hit, I told him that I didn't think so, the shock hadn't worn off yet. I'll never forget what Armstrong then said, "Sir, lets get the blank of this place". I told him to get over to the other knoll. I got up and walked over to get my equipment. Suddenly I realized that I couldn't pick anything up with my left arm.

   Finally, after struggling with a steel pot, a M-16, a rut sack, and a waterproof bag, I got everything n my right arm. As I wobbled down the saddle, heading for the other knowll, I suddenly felt something warm flowing down my left arm. As I looked down at my arm, it didn't take a rocket scientist to tell me that I had been hit.

   When I finally got back to Dak To, I was as green as the jungle fatigues I had on. Luckily the mortar fragment had gone clean through the meaty portion of the inside of my arm pit. Luckier still, by being uphill from where the round hit, I probably would have ended up paralyzed or worse, in a body bag.

   Now, I look back at that day and kind of chuckle, because I'm sure that I looked exactly like one of those characters in the Keystone Cop films. I would give anything to had a picture of the look on my face as I was spitting dirt out of my mouth, I'll never know.

Henry Hickman

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