Blackhorse Hoofbeats
 

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Don Snedeker
11th ACVVC Historian


 

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Blackhorse Hoofbeats

4th Quarter, 2022

Echoes from the Regiment’s Service in Vietnam 1966 – 1972

ACAV – The Workhorse of the Blackhorse: When Brian Daley returned from Vietnam in 1967, he had dreams of becoming a writer of science fiction. He wanted to put his time with the 409th Radio Research Detachment in Vietnam behind him, but some of the images of war just wouldn't go away. So, he embraced them. He wrote his first novel, The Doomfarers of Coramonde, in between attending classes and serving steaks to hungry diners. The novel centers on a crew of Blackhorse Troopers who are snatched from the reality of jungle warfare into a fantasy world of dragons, princesses, and evil wizards. Mounted on their Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle (ACAV) named Lobo, the Troopers are forced to overcome not RPGs and mines, but sorcerers’ spells and dragons’ fire.

While some non-believers might be skeptical about the triumph of steel over sorcery, Troopers – like Brian Daley – who served in the Blackhorse between 1966 and 1972 aren't surprised at the outcome. Their ACAVs were capable of anything and everything. They were Timexes, taking a lickin’ and still a’tickin’. They went everywhere, in the alkaline dust or the monsoon mud. They provided mobility, firepower, and protection on missions and a place to sleep at night.

Dee Cuttrell arrived in Vietnam in the summer of 1967. He was among the Troopers who replaced Brian and the other Boat People as their year in Vietnam was completed. He was initially assigned as the 1/11 Motor Officer, responsible for maintaining the squadron’s hundreds of vehicles and pieces of combat gear. In September, he assumed command of Bravo Troop. His evaluation of the M113 ACAVs was shared by many other Blackhorse Troopers. “The M113A1 itself is just some kind of fantastic vehicle. We broke jungle, busted jungle as we called it with those things. We did everything with them. They were our house, they were our fortress, they were our assault vehicle, they did everything. And that engine was fantastic. The track. The suspension system. Everything was just absolutely great … The finest fighting vehicle in Vietnam.”

There were, however, some naysayers. Dave Doyle served two tours with the Blackhorse, including as the 3/11 commander in 1969. At the end of his first tour in 1967, he thought that the M113 “was the best APC [Armored Personnel Carrier] we ever had.” But, after seeing the carnage wrought on the Kilo Troop ACAVs during the 21 May 1967 ambush, he concluded that “it is not a fighting vehicle. Instead, it is a transportation vehicle transformed al a Rube Goldberg for a purpose for which it was never intended.”

ACAV crew members generally made a progression through the five positions, starting in the back and moving forward and up in responsibility. Red Devil Marvin Gootee recalls: “I was assigned as a combat engineer with the third platoon on track E33. Initially, I was given the task of grenade launcher and ammo bearer which then progressed to machine gunner and eventually ending up as a track commander toward the end of my tour. Along the way, I did some time periodically as a track driver as did we all so that any man could perform any task on the track.”

When the crew was complete (with nobody wounded or on R&R), the fifth man was a grenadier, armed with an M79 grenade launcher (blooper). He was frequently the new guy learning the ropes; he was responsible for making sure the track commander (TC) and M60 side-gunners never ran out of ammo by handing them boxes from the ACAV floor. Even with the fifth crewman, the gunners often found that they were shooting a box of ammo so quickly that the grenadier never had a chance to fire even one grenade – a lesson learned during the Regiment’s first combat action on 21 November 1966 and repeated over and over until 1972.

Fox Troop’s Jim Griffiths recalls that there was most definitely a hierarchy within the ACAV crew. When he joined the crew of F-24, he “was assigned as the right-side M60 machine gunner. The newest guy always gets the right gun because the exhaust from the vehicle is on the right side and it is the ‘privilege’ of the newest guy to get the brunt of diesel exhaust in his face while moving.” Besides the discomfort, the left-side gunner needed to be experienced and disciplined enough to not accidentally shoot the driver, who is directly in front of him, in a firefight.

Fred Rivera and Herman Johnson are a case in point. Fred drove their Charlie Troop ACAV, while Herman was the left-side gunner. “I trusted him to not shoot me in the head,” Fred said decades later. Herman agrees: “‘I can't even tell you about that… That’s between me and Fred.’”

It was that trust that caused Fred such grief when he held Herman in his arms on 20 August 1969. He was bleeding out from a head wound. Fred was sure his best buddy died that day near Loc Ninh. He thought so for over four decades. But that same trust – and love – for Herman persisted; he even wrote a book about their friendship (Fred Rivera, Raw Man, 2015). And when a twist of fate brought the two of them together again 47 years later, it was that trust and love that helped Fred fight through red tape and a reluctant bureaucracy to make sure Herman finally received the Purple Heart for those wounds. In the presence of Fred Rivera and Congressman Sander Levin and several fellow Blackhorse veterans, Herman Johnson received his long-overdue Purple Heart at The Wall on 10 July 2016, presented by Guy Swan, the 57th Colonel of the Regiment. A small crowd of visitors to The Wall spontaneously applauded the impromptu ceremony.

Most Troopers who served aboard ACAVs during their service in Vietnam will tell you that the M113 was an easy vehicle to drive. The driver’s compartment, while somewhat cramped if you were a big man, was well organized and uncomplicated. Third-HOW’s Rod George, who drove 3-HOW-73 (a Forward Observer ACAV), describes his morning routine.

“As soon as I had stretched enough that my legs would work right, I climbed up onto the track on the left front of the ACAV, grabbed the antennae protector bracket with my right hand and the edge of the open drivers hatch with my left and hoisted myself up on top of the ACAV. I dropped down into the driver’s hatch, flipped the ignition on with my left hand and made sure the automatic transmission was in neutral with my right. I offered a short prayer to the battery gods and hit the starter. The 361 cubic inch Chrysler V-8 caught with a roar and I kept it at half throttle while I checked the gauges [water temperature, oil pressure, charging system, speedometer, and tachometer]. Everything came up to green and the exhaust smoothed out as the engine warmed up.”

Driver’s controls included two floor-mounted laterals (controlling the left and right tracks), a wall-mounted gear shift (three forward and one reverse gears), an accelerator, and the driver’s seat. If you wanted the vehicle to go straight, you put the vehicle in gear and stepped on the accelerator. Moving left and right and braking was accomplished by pulling back on one or both of the laterals. That’s all there was to it. Driving was so simple, in fact, that regimental records are replete with awards for bravery given to ACAV drivers who maneuvered their vehicles in an assault while simultaneously firing their M16 rifles at close-in targets – usually RPG gunners who aimed to do the driver and his vehicle harm. When needed – usually in the middle of a firefight – drivers also helped the TC change the barrel on his caliber .50 machine gun. To do so, the driver had to stand up in his hatch, the upper part of his body totally exposed and with his back turned to the enemy.

Yes, it was dangerous work.

While the physical act of driving was relatively simple, operating an ACAV required considerable skill. Drivers were primarily responsible for knowing where they could take their vehicles and where they were likely to get bogged down. Or what would cause them to throw a track. Or where there might be a mine. Drivers were also the first-line mechanics, responsible for the care and feeding of their mount. Daily maintenance tasks included checking and cleaning fuel and air filters, oil and fuel levels, track tension and security, and myriad other dirty, sweaty, grimy tasks that had to be accomplished before eating, sleeping, or writing letters home. During the dry season, filters might have to be cleaned every time you stopped. During the wet season, cleaning the muck out of the suspension system while halted might preclude a thrown track somewhere down the trail.

Driving was also one of the most dangerous jobs in the Cav. You were closest to the enemy during the assault, and there wasn't much aluminum between you and the RPG coming your way. You sat just above the left track, so when the mine detonated, it did so right under your feet. Sandbagging the floor of the driver’s compartment helped. The add-on armor introduced in 1967 didn’t; it protected the rest of the crew, but not the driver. Fox Troop’s Larry Logan put things in perspective: “You worried more about landmines than you did RPGs…” Bravo Troop’s Paul Letourneau agrees; in his platoon, Troopers referred to the “death seat… The rule here is the FNG … drives. Driving an M-113 ACAV is not a difficult skill to learn. The bad thing is if an ACAV hits a mine, the three gunners get blown off the track, but the driver gets blown up.”

For Richard Saldana, it was both a mine and an RPG that did him in. He’d arrived in Vietnam in June 1969 and served eight months as a side-gunner. Then he switched to driver. On 1 April 1970, he was driving the troop’s lead ACAV. Alpha Troop (fresh from the Anonymous Battle) was hot on the trail of the 272nd North Vietnamese Regiment that had almost overrun Fire Support Base Illingworth just hours before. The unit covering the withdrawal of the 272nd hit Alpha Troop six times that morning. About a half an hour before noon, it was Saldana’s turn. His ACAV hit a hastily-emplaced mine, followed almost immediately by an RPG. The rocket hit the ammo can attached to the TC’s caliber .50. Richard recalls that there “was shrapnel flying all over the place”. The next thing he knew, he was on a light observation helicopter (LOH) being medevaced. After months in the hospital, the doctors were barely able to save his left arm – but his right hand was gone forever, severed in the explosion.

Yes, driving an ACAV was a dangerous occupation. Despite that, someone always stepped up when a new driver was needed. The Kilo Troop commander in late 1968 (Tom Middaugh) tells why: “We had no trouble finding drivers, as they took it as a badge of courage and prided themselves in their driving skill and ability to find a way around the mines, as well as being highly esteemed by their comrades aboard.”

Most drivers took great pride in ‘their’ vehicles – the TC might be in charge in the military scheme of things, but it was the driver’s vehicle.

 


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