May 15, 1967 - Dinh Tuong Province

4th/47th's First Battle in the Mekong Delta. . .

May 15th Battle | Newspaper Articles | After Action Report | "The Ultimate Game" by Gene Harvey

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       As we approached the frontmost/topmost/northernmost tree line, I realized that our formation had now found me out front, a place that I was not used to.  Machine gunners and their crew were never put out in the full front should a surprise booby trap take them out. Machine gunners were never "point men" as the firepower of the gun made it to valuable to risk.  But here I was, more or less in a jagged front line of
soldiers.  This was a mistake, not for the added risk to me but for the added risk to the gun should it need it's A-gunner.

       I'd say we were about 50 meters away, or so, when the VC opened up on us. Looking back, I have considered that Charlie must have been thinking "Wait 'til you see the whites of their eyes."  Nevertheless, our training had taught us to be well spread out as we approached the tree line. We were also trained to be ready and in position to throw a lot of firepower right back at Charlie.
 

Gene Harvey - Pg 3A

Note on all maps: Soldier icons are not to scale; Soldier icons do not represent
full number of men.  1 inch equals approximately 100 meters.

       When the VC bullets first came at us from out of the tree lines that morning of May 15th, I did an immediate drop to one knee while thumbing my switch, on my M16, from single shot mode to full-automatic mode, and fired into the trees but with no real targets to be had.

       I found myself thankful that, just moments earlier, I had already pulled back ol' trusty's charging handle and let it go, which chambered the first round.  I had also thumbed the safety switch off. Actually there was no 'off', as when you switched away from 'Safety' the next position the switch fell into was 'single-shot' mode or more appropriately 'semi-automatic'. The very next (and last) position set the gun for firing on 'full-automatic'. This allowed the gun to fire continuously as long as you held the trigger... or until the magazine was emptied. Loading a round in the chamber and flipping the safety switch off was something we were not supposed to do until the moment we were to fire. This precaution or practice of keeping the M16 always switched to 'safety' was done in case, well, some mistake was made or we fell or tripped or something like that and might accidentally pump bullets into ourselves or another of  our own troops. Actually, this practice of keeping our gun on safety was really more than a smart practice, it was a strict rule that we were to follow.  But, at that particular moment I felt that it was a rule that needed to be broken as we had been in this kind of situation one particular time before and I wanted to be able to fire instantly with no waiting.

       On that similar occasion a few months before, I also did not see the enemy when VC bullets had come out of the thick jungle. On that day, they had found us in the open next to a stream. However, even though they had ambushed us, our massive returning firepower had routed the enemy that day.  Least ways, at that
time, we had heard their maneuvering whistles and the enemy had stopped firing; we presumed they skedaddled, especially after we'd got the M60 into action.

       There is an infantry tactical theory that starts with a few very obvious but compelling facts.  And, these are so obvious, even to the most casual observer, I have to report this more tongue-in-cheek than otherwise:

  • The side with the most firepower tended to win more often (big earthen and/or cement bunkers not withstanding). It was simple; the Army had found (through many studies on previous wars) that the number one predictor of casualties on the other side was the total number of bullets that were fired from your side.

    Well, I did not have to read the Army studies to figure this one out.  I came up with the same conclusion all by myself.
     
  • Also, this tactical theory maintains that to gain the advantage in firepower it assumes that soldiers carrying M-16s would fire their rifles on full-automatic, submachine gun style.

       However, this theory goes on to remind us that when you fired on full automatic you tended to run through your ammo much faster. Ha! BUT, the combat theory concluded that as one soldier was switching magazines, there would be others continuing to fire, thus the squad would be putting up a sustained, never ending rate of fire. This was okay so far, but someone had also told us that we were actually to "coordinate" this during battle.  Double Ha!
 

Gene Harvey - Pg 3B
Gene Harvey - Pg 3C

Ol' TRUSTY:

       A word here about my M16 Rifle: In 1967, the M16 had been in service just a short while. We trained with the older, bigger, heavier, longer M14 rifle in Ft. Riley. The M14 was certainly heavy, but it had a much larger 7.62mm NATO round or bullet.  Because it was a large rifle with a large cartridge, some supposed the M14 had a greater punch (retained energy at given distance) than the new M16.  I was one who believed this might be the case. The advantage of the M14 was that it had a longer effective range. Its bullets were nearly three times heavier than the 5.56mm NATO bullet from the newer, smaller M16.  But, when I speak of the old M14's 'punch', I believed it held a much greater amount of energy at the longer distances than the M16. I am no ordinance expert, and many may differ with me, but I felt that the newer M16 was fine up to 300 meters, but at further distances, its 'punch' quickly started to be outclassed by the M14. Even though the newer M16 was still very accurate, I believed the greater long distance punch of the older M14 was why they were still being issued as scoped sniper rifles.

       Now I want you to stop and think about this fact: The M16's smaller 5.56mm NATO round converts pretty damn closely to the same diameter as a 22-caliber rifle. Back on the farm, 22's were really just used for 'plinking' or maybe for shooting small varmints and the like.  You could not bring down a 150-pound deer with it (about the same size as a human). So, at first, I had a concern about being issued this new weapon. Ah, but I was to find that the 5.56mm NATO round had a much larger cartridge (gunpowder casing) causing it's bullet to travel at about 2 ˝ times the velocity of a .22 long rifle bullet.

       There were also reports about how, unlike the older and heavier M14 bullet, the lighter M16 bullet would tumble when it entered flesh, thus making a more effective meat cleaver. US Army doctors in South Vietnam in 1966 reported that while wounds inflicted at close range had small entrance and exit holes, wounds at longer ranges had a small entrance hole but with an exit hole that was a "gaping, devastated area of soft tissue and even bone, often with a loss of large amounts of tissue, with disintegration of the bullet and minute splattering of lead."   In my personal experience, I honestly can't say if this was true or not, although I had liked to think that it was true. After hearing this, I wondered which of these two rifles truly had the greater 'punch'. All I knew was that ol' trusty seemed to do a fine job for my purposes.

       Also, there was more that made me favor the M16 over the older M14: The designers of the new M16 had incorporated a very neat carrying handle into the rear sight assembly, which furthermore reduced the fatigue of carry throughout the long hot patrols in the jungle.  Also, the heavier M14's cartridge also made carrying large quantities of ammo more difficult. Moreover, the M14 was a much longer rifle too, and was simply considered unsuitable for close-in jungle fights. In fact, the Army had learned, from studies from previous wars, that the side that could bring their weapons to bear faster had a decided advantage.  They had calculated that an 8-man M16 team could generate the same firepower as an 11-man M14 team.

       Even though the M16 was manufactured by Colt, some took to calling it a Mattel toy. I suppose more because it had plastic parts for the stock and front handgrip (instead of the heavy wood used on the older, bigger M14). Trust me on this, it was no toy.

       The M16 had had reports of some unreliability though. We had heard of Marines in the northern I Corps found dead with their cleaning rod shoved down the barrel of their M16.  It wasn't that they were caught cleaning their weapon in battle, but rather they were trying to un-jam a stuck round.  We had heard that some Marines were so unsure of their M16s that they had taken to using captured Chicom AK47s as their personal weapons.  The AK47 was an excellent weapon insofar as it had a strong killing 'punch', but more importantly - due to less sophisticated manufacturing capabilities - it was made with loose tolerances, which ironically made it extremely dependable. It did not jam, even when dirty.
 

Gene Harvey - Pg 3D

       I suppose the US Army's new M16 looked good on paper, like many new designs, but there were still things to learn in field-testing.  I didn't like to think of myself as being part of some sort of field test with  real ammo and a real enemy. I had guessed (and I am pretty sure about this one) that in the combat game, the enemy would not give me a "Time Out" should my M16 jam.

       I once ran across a Chicom AK47 in one VC encampment, and wondered if I should try it, except that I had also remembered the stories of the Marines that used an AK47 would soon find themselves on the receiving end of friendly fire.  It was pretty clear to me why:  It was because the AK47 made its own distinctive 'popping' sound and I knew that when I heard one chattering, that I too could be quick to toss few bullets in that direction. Another reason for me not taking up the AK that day was that I realized that there would be a re-supply problem as our supply sergeant did not stock Russian or Chinese ammo. To have an ample re-supply I would have to depend on Charlie to cough some up.  Although we were constantly collecting Charlie's weapons, the whole prospect of these choices hurt my brain. I was overthinking this. OK, Harvey, better stick to what you know besides my M16 seemed to be working fine.

       I do not recall taking a survey among my buddies as to how reliable their M16's were, but as for me, I never had one bit of trouble with my M16.  In fact, I called her "Ol' Trusty" for that very reason.  Perhaps because I had been taught, in training, the importance of keeping my weapons clean, or perhaps I had simply been given an improved model, or it was simply because I was lucky?  Or maybe it was a little of all three, I didn't know.

       We had been trained to have our weapon with us always.  We were to never to step out of reach of it for any reason.  To help remember this, the Army drilled the "Rifleman's Creed" into us.
These are the beginning words:

  • This is my rifle.  There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life. My rifle, without me, is useless.  Without my rifle, I am useless.

       The idea was clear: "Do not ever be caught out of reach of your weapon should a surprise need for it arise".  This, of course, made infinite sense to us and we all gladly developed this habit.

       This habit of togetherness, learned through repetition, did serve to have you consider the weapon as a very close friend. It was a friend that would step up and save your ass in combat, but only if you treated your friend well. But in some ways my M16 was more than a friend, she was a girlfriend.  I knew the feel of "ol' trusty" almost better than many old high school girlfriends.  I knew all of her parts by touch. To me "sweet 16" now had a double meaning. At that time, however, I didn't think that I could break her down (I liked the term "field strip") and reassemble her as fast as Tom Hanks did with his rifle in the film Forrest Gump, but I think that I could do it in the dark (also not unlike my old high school girlfriends). Since my first patrol in the swamps, I had found that there was a lot of mud in the Mekong Delta and you might end up wanting, or rather needing, to clean your weapon in the middle of a night ambush.  Moreover, as you might guess, it wasn't very wise to use a flashlight in the middle of the night in Charlie territory. Although there was supposed to be some type of blackout lens available for the Army flashlight; I never saw one unless it was those red filter lenses. Besides, along with their D batteries, a flashlight was just added extra weight. In either case, I could not fathom that any type of light filter; red, blue, blackout or otherwise, could ever be successful in being completely obscured from the enemy at night.

  • My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother.  I will learn its weakness, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel. I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will!

       However, as it turned out, it never came to a point of me having to attempt to field strip ol' trusty at night. No matter how good I thought that I might be in cleaning her at night, I also had a healthy fear of losing some of her smaller parts like springs and locking pins …or especially her firing pin.  I did take great pains not to stick her barrel in that omnipresent toothpaste-like mud. I also never drowned her in water during our many river crossings. Although the fix for this was easier, the manual just instructed to "drain before firing."  In addition, the manual also instructed that it might be good to release your ammo magazine and shake it out …but only if Charlie wasn't around. Duh!

       As I recall, the M16 rifle weighed less than 10 pounds loaded with a double magazine (more on the double magazine later). The M16 could easily send a bullet downrange more than 1˝ miles. It was rated to be effective to over 400 meters, but some said probably closer to 300 meters was a better estimate. It had the firepower of 650-700 rounds per minute.  However, with a 20 round magazine, well, I will let you do the math.  Simply, how many rounds per minute we could get off depended more on how quickly you could change out magazines. This being said, I thought it might be nicer if we had 30 round magazines instead of the 20, and had wished that these were made available to us (they weren't).

       Now, back to the reliability, I had learned (more from rumor than fact) that it was more advisable to load the M16's 20-round magazine with no more than 18 or 19 rounds to avoid jamming or something bad like
that.  What the manual said was what might happen if you overloaded the magazine, that you took the chance of spreading the lips of the shells where they would no longer feed. Actually, the Army manual defined overloading as when a soldier tried to put 21 rounds in a magazine designed for 20.  I did not like the idea of having less ammo in the magazine, but I relished even less the possibility of having the rifle stop working in midstream.  I came to decide that I understood some of the engineering and the forces involved and thought it best to compromise and load only 19 rounds, but never could bring myself to load only 18. I may have been overthinking again, but I do know that ol' trusty never jammed on me.

       History has reported that most of the early jamming problems were identified with carbon build up in the chamber after long heated firefights.  This was fixed somewhere along the line when the manufacturer started chrome plating the chamber.  I was not aware of this during my time with the M16; I don't know if ol' trusty had a chrome-plated chamber or not. It could be that I really never put her to the full test of a real prolonged heated firefight like those poor dead Marine heroes had experienced up north.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE GAME:

     Like the previous time we were ambushed by VC, I emptied my first magazine clip into the jungle, quickly released it from the rifle and then flipped it around to insert the fresh clip that I had taped upside down to the now-empty clip.  This technique of taping two clips together (one upside down from the other) was

Gene Harvey - Pg 3E

developed in the field by practical-thinking GIs long before Vietnam.  It wasn't in the manual.  I had seen it done by others and was quick to see the advantage ...and quick to adopt the practice.  All that it took was a quick turn of the wrist and you nearly instantly replaced the empty clip with a full one.  Time was the essence here. It was this similar kind of independent thinking that, when I was a machine gunner, I discovered from a Huey door gunner the practice of using an empty food can from a C-rations pack, which could be locked into the M60 Machine Gun's ammunition box attachment system to roll the ammunition belts over for a straighter and smoother feed into the loading port to enhance reliability of feed. This wasn't in the manual either, but it worked. One thing that worked well for American combat soldiers was that we were thinking individuals;

we could use innovation and make our own tactical decisions while still working within the order and discipline of the larger unit. We had learned to walk this tightrope in training. We would win the game when the team worked as a team, but there would also be those times when we were allowed to react to the moment as an individual, but always from within the team framework.  It's something like that football team that moved down field through a series of 20 individual lateral tosses… Highly unconventional, not in the game plan, not in the coach's book of plays, but it got them a touchdown that day.

       With a fresh magazine in ol' trusty, I then looked to my left for my gunner insofar as my next job was to link up an ammo belt on to the M60. But, I was now out front of my gunner…and even worse.. I was also on his right side.  I should have been looking to the right, for my gunner, not left, as I needed to be positioned on his left in order to link up the additional ammo belt. I had positioned myself poorly and mistakes were deadly in combat.  Mistakes, even small ones, were deadly in combat to not only oneself, but also to your buddies as well. I reprimanded myself to not allow this to happen again. Although, I would find later, I was capable of making new mistakes.

       However, this time I was lucky because the gunner would not need me as, in that short instance, someone behind me slapped me on the shoulder and hollered out that we were ordered to retreat or draw back or fall back or withdraw or something like that (or "run-away!  run-away!" as Monty Python had put it so well - and more accurately - in their movie "The Holy Grail" eight years later).  At that moment, I was unsure of the wisdom of turning tail.  I certainly did not want to be shot in the back.  What would that look like for my dead body to arrive back home with a bullet in the back? To me, if I was to die, I wanted the entrance holes to be in the front; it was much nobler. Besides, at that particular moment in time I did not really feel that I could be shot.  Maybe others but not me.  As long as I could face the enemy, I felt (for no real justifiable reason) that I had the upper hand.  I would win and he would lose, it was that simple.  I supposed that this could have been my habit of 'Positive Thinking' kicking in. However, I later determined that this thinking was akin to what many GI's feel in a firefight: "It will always be the 'other guy' who gets killed, not me". It is supposed that those that are, in fact, killed in battle may have also engaged in this same fantasy.

       But unlike the others, I also carried a proverbial rabbits foot too. I really believed that with my amazing and astounding good luck that I would always prevail against the enemy.  I then became the "thinking individual"; rather than retreat, I got up and maneuvered forward while firing my second clip. I suppose that I was thinking that this suppressed some of the enemy fire, but who can say? Was I trying to suppress enemy fire? Hell yes!  But, was I doing it to keep the enemy from firing on my buddies, or was I being more selfish? Remembering that moment, I think it was possibly a combination of the two.

       No soldier (or commander) likes to admit that he was routed by the enemy. However, it is important to note that this withdrawal was not caused by the dreadful disease of fear that sometimes envelopes combat soldiers with a sense of panic.  This pullback was simply an outcome and result of our training really.  Tactically it was the smart move.  This is not to say that it was necessarily orderly however. The runbacks were done individually rather than in any sense that our platoon was a group.  The best thing that can be said was that everyone was running in the same direction.

       Later, in one after action report, the Army had tried to put the best light on this one little slice-of-time of the overall operation that day, when they understated this event by recording: "At that time for Charlie Company: Further Progress Became Very Difficult".  Ha! Again.

       A few moments, after the order to withdraw, I started to reassess my personal strategy of moving forward, as fire superiority seemed to have been established, but this time it wasn't our fire superiority, it was Charlie's. Charlie was not only in bunkers, the bunkers were concealed in the trees, and we were in the open.  The VC had the 'home court' advantage, but to shoot at us while staying hidden away in their bunkers… well, I think it may have even been unsportsmanlike on their part.  But, there were no referees out on the playing field throwing penalty flags for someone committing a foul. There are few rules in combat and we all knew rule number one: Win!  You win by killing the enemy and you kill the enemy only when you stay alive.
 

Gene Harvey - Pg 3F

Note on all maps: Soldier icons are not to scale; Soldier icons do not represent
full number of men.  1 inch equals approximately 100 meters.

       At this moment, I briefly considered dropping to a prone position, fully to the ground, thinking that it would, of course, make me a harder target. However, I did have fears of being left alone too, and that scared me more than being shot in the back.  Besides, the order was to withdraw. I next contemplated if there would be any shame in running away when you were 'ordered' to retreat? The decision then became an easy one. I decided to run-away... to run for my life. While we were running away, I convinced myself that it probably was a very good idea since none of our firing into the tree line seemed to deter the enemy from continuing to shoot at us.

       I rapidly removed my 'double clip' from my M16 and fished in my pocket for a fresh single clip, inserted it and stood to start my run to the rear. I made another quick burst into the tree line of about 6-10 bullets and then turned to put my back to the enemy. At about 15 to 20 seconds into the start of my run, I started seeing the dust kick up at my feet where the VC bullets were apparently searching for me... and my buddies.  I could also hear the supersonic flight of the bullets as they flew by, like tiny little jet aircraft racing me back to our main lines. Suddenly my thinking changed on the possibility of me becoming shot.  It wasn't that I now thought that now I would be shot instead of the 'other guy', now I thought it would be both me and the 'other guy' that would be shot.  How I wasn't shot then and there seemed, at the time, to just be random good luck. With such apparent and remarkable good luck, I supposed that, at that moment, I might have wished that I could be instantly teleported to Las Vegas, but for more reasons than just my probable likelihood that I might pull the right cards at blackjack.

       It was then when things really started to slow down in my head. I had run track in my senior year in high school; I was tall and lanky and was best suited for running high hurdles (something that I might have thought would have been to my advantage with those deep potholes in the ground). I was not the fastest on the team…several fellow students could easily outrun me, especially in the straightforward 100-yard
dash.  But I could still run the 100-yard dash in a little under 11 seconds. That day, I guessed that we had somewhere between three and four football fields distance to run to make it all of the way back. That's a 300-400 yard dash! I realized that I can't run full-out for that kind of distance… but I decided I sure as hell would run full-out for at least the first 100 yards or so. I then tried to do the math and I concluded that, with someone shooting at me, I might be able to match the world record for running 100 yards (which was somewhere down in the 9 ˝ second range). Maybe, except for the damned rice paddy pock-marked/potholed ankle breaking ground - I had better be darned sure of my footing here; it's not a good time to fall down. The running method of my choosing was to take a quick look at my 'finish line' off in the far distance, get a quick idea of direction, but then to keep my eyes facing down watching my foot placement.  This method worked well to keep my footing, but it also gave me a constant view of the VC bullets, which
would kick up the dirt around me.

       At that time, my mind took me back to a book that I had recently read while still in college, just prior to my induction in 1966.  I felt that this odd state of affairs in which I then found myself was like a no-win piece of logic put forth by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel Catch-22. I felt that I had found myself in a catch-22 no-win situation, of a sort, because:  I'd better not take my eyes off the running ground, for fear of tripping, but at the same time, I wanted to look up as I wanted to keep my eye on the prize, namely our rear lines where a large force of Bravo and Charlie companies were still located. Moreover, I had long abandoned that "it-will-be-the-other-guy" kind of thinking and concluded that I could get shot. I also didn't like the idea of having to watch the bullets hit the dirt beside me constantly reminding that I was perhaps soon to die.  I then thought of the paranoid "Yossarian", the main character of Catch 22...a WWII bombardier whom Heller had described as suffering from a severe fear of death, and thought that everyone was trying to kill him. A little like Yossarian, I then briefly wondered if, along with the VC, that the US Army itself wasn't also trying to kill me with that stupid move up to the tree line. What had happened to those days of sneaking around the jungle surprising the VC by ambushing them?  This move up to the tree line while in the open seemed altogether more like antiquated and outdated earlier centuries warfare where the generals of that time thought the way to overcome the enemy was for their own troops to straight-charge the enemy in his fortification. At least someone figured out that, at that moment, retreat was smarter than honorable. I was glad to be committed to my run.

- Continued on Page 4 -
 

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