Remembering my 4th of July in Tam Kỳ, Vietnam
There are daily news of threats against our country and its Constitution. The word “patriot” is joked about and generally in a negative light. This daily barrage on the evening news and cable television makes me reflect on the true patriots with whom I served in Vietnam from 10/1967 to 10/1968. It also reminds me of a very memorable 4th of July I spent with some of these patriots. It was July 4, 1968 in Tam Kỳ, Vietnam.
Fifty-four years ago, at the age of 21, I found myself, a Buck Sgt., E-5, assigned to a 155 millimeter howitzer battalion, perched on top of a ridge somewhere in the foothills west of the Vietnamese town of Tam Kỳ on LZ (Landing Zone) O’Conner.
My MOS (military occupational specialty) was an artillery surveyor. My job at the time was to get coordinates and a true line of direction, a bearing, established for the gun battery before the guns arrived via flying crane. It was not an easy task: not only did we have to establish our exact position via a “sunburn”, but we also needed the cooperation of the weather, the units on the LZ and, of course, the Viet Cong. , to get the job. Finished. We pulled it off! We waited for our work to be verified via one of the guns firing based on our data and an aerial observer checking the air burst exactly where he wanted to see one – in time and on target. The tour recorded, we were free to go.
It’s a funny thing about the military, they went out of their way to make sure you got into battle, but didn’t really care how you got back. Being a “divisional artillery unit”, we were sent pretty much wherever they needed our services. Helicopters were coming and going all day off the LZ that day, so we started looking for a return to Chu Lai, our battalion HQ. It was standard operating procedure – SOP – for us after these investigations. We knew very well, after seven months “in the country”, that this new LZ was going to be hit around 2 am. It was almost a given with the new LZs at this time of the war.
We pulled off a ride with the mail chopper, a Huey Slick. Almost immediately, I noticed that this helicopter was a little off. The door gunners looked a bit rough – t-shirts, cropped fatigue pants, and even the pilots looked a bit loose. But in Nam, a turn was a turn.
We boarded – tripods, theodolite, disks, satchel, weapons, ammunition, etc.
The helicopter took off normally, but shortly after the flight the pilot fell to treetop level “earth nap” I believe they call it. It was not SOP. We always flew at 3,200 feet and stayed above the LZ until we reached altitude to avoid ground fire. But these guys were doing something different. Around this time I noticed the door gunner closest to me popping a red smoke grenade and dropping it in the basket next to his M60 – there was no link ammo twisted in the basket – thank God. Then he popped a white smoke grenade, then a blue smoke grenade. The other door gunner was doing the same thing.
We were now flying at dangerous treetop level, pouring red, white and blue smoke into the fuselage. That’s when I realized they were celebrating the 4th of July – country style – chopper style.
I think of these guys every Fourth of July. Surely another unit or other helicopters saw us coming out of the foothills streaming red, white and blue smoke. They may have thought we were crashing or going crazy or both.
I’m 75 and still alive. Father of five children and grandfather of six children. Like veterans of all wars, I have memories that only those who served can share. I do this with pride to all of our true patriots and in particular to this helicopter crew of 54 years ago.
Southampton resident Robert J Moffatt served with the 3rd Battalion, 16th Artillery, 23rd Infantry Division US Army in Vietnam.