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Memories of Firebase Illingsworth, Vietnam
We moved in during March to build Illingsworth. There was a grassy clearing in the place. We arrived late in the day and began building gun pits for our mortars, hoochies to sleep in, and stores for our ammunition. We had our mortars, the 105, our radar unit, the line company and our battalion headquarters (TOC). We were told we couldn’t go to sleep until we had 3 layers of sandbags on our sleeping hoochs. As the sun went down, it started to rain. Filling the sandbags was very difficult. Around 11pm we gave up on the sandbags. I lay down on the bed and put a plastic sheet over me. The next morning I woke up at first light and thought I had lost my hearing. Then I realized that the boiler was holding water that was going over my ears.
The next day we continued to build the fire base. We were told we would be firing at targets in Cambodia. Charlie was moving in Cambodia and then moving across the border to join our troops. Illingsworth was called the LZ jump. We would be there for a few days and then move to a new location. About the next day, six 155s were moved in. We were getting fire missions several times a day. 155 fired day and night. 155 regularly pounded the targets. Every day we received so much ammunition in the mortars that we could not fire them in one day. We had to stack crates of mortar ammunition on the ground. At one point we rolled two pallets of mortar ammunition off the mule and left it lying where it landed. After we had been there for a few days, two tracked 8-inch artillery guns were moved to the firing base. You may have noticed that I never mentioned any wire or claymore mines. We didn’t have any. There was nothing between us and the wood.
A couple of weeks before the end of March, Bobby Barker came to me and asked me if I would consider letting him go to the back to get his teeth fixed. He said you know the sergeant can only have a few days before I go home. Bobby was a great guy, always did his job and had a great attitude. I told Bobby I would like him to leave the next day. I wrote a little note to the first sergeant asking him to send Bobby to fix his teeth. I suggested that Bobby stay behind as he only had a few weeks left in the country. Bobby left in the helicopter after we all said our goodbyes and wished him well.
In late March, a young lieutenant named Mike Russell showed up at the fire station. He spent several months in the country with the 4th ID. The fourth went home, but Mike didn’t have enough time to ride with them. That loser ended up with us. By the end of March, Mike had been there long enough for us to become good friends. He was one hell of a guy. A few days before the end of March, Firebase Jay got hit really hard. They were found a few clicks away from us. The sky looked like it was on fire. I didn’t know any guys on Jay, but during their attack I kept praying that they would be able to fend off the attachment and that we wouldn’t get the same dose of medication.
On the last day of March 1970, things looked extremely tense. I saw high-ranking people leaving the fire base in helicopters. I look up and see Bobby Barker coming in from one of the helicopters. Bobby came up to me and said Sergeant’ I had to come out and show you how good I look with my teeth fixed and I wanted to say goodbye to everyone. Bobby gave me a big smile as he showed his teeth and said, “My mom is going to be so proud of me and my teeth.” I told Bobby to follow everyone, get in the helicopter and get out of here. Then I said, Bobby, you shouldn’t have left today. He said yes, I didn’t get on the plane, instead I got on the helicopter to come see you.
Ammunition for the 8-inch guns was moved to the fire base throughout the day. They had the same problem we were doing only worse. They had tons of ammunition and nowhere to put it. They fired at the wood several times during the day. It was really amazing to see the power of these weapons. Late that day I saw that Bobby was still at the base. There was a helicopter on the ground. I told Bobby to run out there and get on that helicopter. Serge said please let me stay here with the boys I love one more night. I said no, Bobby, you have to leave. He walked away from me.
At about 11:30 p.m., our radar unit reported to Lt. Russell and I that we had a lot of movement on the Red Ball, which was just over the border. The limit was about 1 click from firebase. They found the NVA moving troops down on trucks and turning west into a large field. They unloaded the soldiers and then went back to get more. We fired 105 and 155 mortars at their position for about an hour. I thought we wiped them out. We laughed and said they would have the rest of the night to haul their dead out of the area. I lay in the FDC and so did Lt. Russell. At about 2:30 all hell broke loose. Mike and I ran out into a cloud of dust. There were goons standing on the berm firing RPGs at the TOC. They were everywhere. I went to all three gun pits and ordered the platoon leaders to randomly fire zeros to the west and to continue as quickly as possible. Mike and I both ended up in the Blue Three led by Juan Romero. Juan and the rest of his team tried to zero the charges while Mike and I handled the gun. I was aiming the gun and Mike was loading the cartridges. I told Mike once that I was afraid I would send one straight up and it would come back to us. Mike said, “I really don’t think it’s going to be shit at this point.” The blue one was destroyed by the satchel charge. Fortunately, everyone got out of the pit. The blue two was destroyed by the gas stove from our kitchen tent. The stove exploded and floated through the air leaving a trail of burning gas and landed in Blue Two. As with Blue One, all the guys got out and went to the berm. I saw Bobby running at FDC. I yelled at Bobby not to go to FDC. He yelled that he didn’t have a rifle. Bobby disappeared into the dust.
We saw how on the 8-inch guns the scoundrels were trying to turn them. The 8 inch was about 50 yards from us. Small arms fire erupted toward the 8-inch.
At some point during the battle I tried to call the FDC on the landline. It was dead. Previously, when I talked to them, it worked. They tried to call the fire brigade to us. I answered the horn. They started calling the fire brigade. I said, “We don’t need direction, charge or height, we can see them.” Looking back now, I realize I should have told them to get their asses out to help us.
Some time after the battle, which seemed to last forever, an eight-inch round went off. We have all left the earth. I thought that was when we would all die. We looked up and saw things in the air that weren’t supposed to be there. Things like PSPs, tree trunks, ammo and lots of dirt. The problem was we knew it was going to have to come back down and it looked like it was heading our way. I admit I almost lost it at that point. I had a wife and two year old son at home who I thought had just lost their husband and father. Although we were a short distance from the 8-inch ordnance, we did not receive a direct blast. The 8-inch gunners left a tracked ammunition carrier and a five-ton truck parked between us and their ammunition. The next morning the 5 ton was demolished and the ammo carrier was on its side looking really bad.
We continued to fight the goons for a while. Sometime around 4:30am we noticed that everything suddenly became very quiet. We felt alone at the fire for a while, though no one mentioned it. Then we heard someone yell, “Richard, are you still there?” I had a bad feeling. I shouted, “Yes.” The person then yelled that those goons had half the LZ and we had to get the hell out of there. We all went through the blast wall like snakes. In basic training I was probably the fastest low crawler on Sand Hill. I started crawling along with the other guys and then I thought I should go to the FDC to make sure everyone got out of there. I turned left and headed for the FDC. As I approached the FDC, I saw Bobby Barker lying on a stretcher. He had dirt everywhere. I crawled around trying to get Bobby to stand up. Then I realized Bobby was dead. Damn! I quickly said goodbye to Bobby and started to push my way through the dust towards where I had last heard that voice of hope. Thank you to the drill sgts. to Sand Hill, which slowly crept for miles. The crawl was easy.
We clustered near the berm. I looked for my guys but couldn’t find them. We had Blue Max helicopters spraying their mini guns all over the west side of the berm. It was a beautiful site and sound. Things calmed down and we waited for dawn. When the sun came up and we saw the LZ, I realized that we had been wiped out, but we had survived. I was walking around looking for my guys. I walked along the line of wounded. I almost walked past Sgt. Huggins. Huggins and I joined the mortar squad that evening at LZ Ike. We also got hit hard that night. That’s another story. Huggins reached out and grabbed my leg. I knelt down to talk to him. He said, “I’m the happy one, I’m going home.” He got a nasty gash on his calf. I wished him the best and went on to find more of my people. We had helicopters coming to pull out the wounded. I helped load the helicopters.
Those birds were piloted by real heroes. At one point there was so much blood on the floor of one helicopter that we were throwing dirt over the blood so people could stand on the floor. One pilot insisted that we put people on his helicopter because it would take a while for another one to return to our location. The pilot told us to take his skids and run with the helicopter. He picked up speed and then passed to the height just before the forest. I’d like to know that guy’s name. I will never forget him. He is a true hero. I think I helped load Pete Lemon onto one of the helicopters that morning. Pete was a member of our company’s reconnaissance squad. The faces were all dirty, bloody and twisted in pain, so I don’t remember any in particular. Pete later won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions that night.
After loading all the wounded I moved on to the dead. I started helping move the bags. On the first one, I made the mistake of getting in the middle. Anyone who has ever stepped into this position knows the problem I had. I knew Bobby was in one of those bags. I really didn’t want to know which one. Bobby wasn’t even supposed to be there.
I found Mike, Hutch, Juan and Terry. We all went back to the mortar area to see what was left. We were amazed we got out of there alive. On Blue Three, there was an unexploded rocket buried in the ground two feet from where I was inside the gun pit. Ammunition was blown all over the area. There were very large pieces of shrapnel from the 8-inch ammunition. There was paper everywhere. We looked at 5 tons and an ammo carrier. That’s when we realized what saved our lives. They just happened to leave the units parked where they were. They had so much ammunition around them that I don’t think they could get any closer to their area.
Some little jerk Captain came with a group to replace us. The little jerk told us to start patrolling the area. Lieutenant Russell walked up to the jerk and told him he was going to let him know that his men had been in battle all night and they weren’t going to guard the damn thing. The jerk asked him if he realized who he was talking to. Mike said, “Sir, I don’t care who you are or what your damn rank is. My men aren’t cleaning up this mess. They can barely stand up.” You gotta love Mike Russell. He still has the same lead. No bullshit, no way, nowhere!
Juan Romero and I went down into the crater created when the 8-inch shell exploded. It was huge. I believe Hutch took our picture in the hole. Then we went to see some dead gooks. I looked at one who had his left arm torn off. You could see the sleeve where the ball joint was. Surprisingly, the guy had about three rounds of gauze wrapped around his shoulders. He was wounded when we fired at them for an hour. They bandaged him up and sent him on the attack. I’ve never known any of our guys to do that.
I remember walking out onto the airstrip to board the helicopter. I looked back at the fire pit in complete disbelief. The helicopter lifted off and we all looked back at base in complete silence. I don’t remember anything being said until some time after we got to the back where they took us.
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