Marine Corps Vietnam Tankers Historical Foundation®
Marine Corps Vietnam-era Tankers and Ontos Crewmen Have Made History. Your Historical Foundation is Making it Known.
This is Harris "Alfie" Himes' narrative regarding May 19, 1968
lt was May 19, 1968, Ho Chi Minh's birthday. It was at the tail-end of Operation Pegasus, the relief of Khe Sanh. The beleaguered, but stalwart, 26th Marine Regiment was in the "process" of being relieved by the Second Battalion, First Marine Regiment. "Process" could mean everything from moseying along co frenzied, deadly combat. The "process"would fie the day.
This early morning, I watched two tanks, B-12 and B-13 from my pla toon load up co escort a road sweep team to check out the road for mines which might have been laid by the NVA during the night. A large convoy was going out of Khe Sanh later in the morning and they didn't need to get stalled by blown-up six-by's, so chat the enemy could pick off the rest of the convoy at their leisure.
Corporal Fred Kellogg was the TC of the tank "Beelzebub" B-12. Corporal "Buzz" Conklin had "Memphisco" B-13. Buzz's regular TC, Corporal Steve Baker, was on R&R. So, Buzz had the tank. Both Kellogg and Conklin were good men and had good crews. Conklin had been around longer, but Kellogg was a quick-learner. I had given the ocher tanks names of the same genre: "Misanthrope" B-14, "Pandemonium" B-11 and "Chaos" B-l5.
As I settled down co cook my morning's C-rats of ham 'n' eggs (canned), using a pinch of C4 (plastic explosive - which burned hot and well) in an empty can with cuts in it from my "John Wayne" can opener, so it could breathe, followed by fruit cocktail (much more highly sought after), I looked up in time co see Kellogg give me a thumbs-up as he headed out the barbed-wire gate.
My platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant 'TJ" Wharton, came ambling over. Sergeant Wharton cried unsuccessfully to effect an Irish brogue , "Ah, the fresh smell of diesel in the morning," referring co the clouds of exhaust drifting our way as the tanks began to move ... "gives just the right tang to m'coffee." We often used the same phrase co describe the military's version of sewage disposal: 55 gallon drums cut in half were partially filled with diesel fuel, placed below the multiple-hole out houses around the camp, then pulled out later to be burned. "Pungent" is an entirely inadequate term for the resultant effluvium.
"What's up, Sergeant Wharton?" I asked him.
"Well, sir, as soon as Kellogg and Conklin get back from the sweep, we'll start getting the rest of the p'toon together for the convoy. I figure I'll lead out," he answered, a smirk on his face distorted the scar on his lip and cheek, the memento of one of his many brawls, because it had long been the custom for me co lead. But TJ was always crying to get his plug in. I often let him take out many of the light (two tanks) and heavy section (three tanks) patrols, but the full platoon (five tanks) belonged co me.
As platoon commander of First Platoon, Bravo Company,Third Tank Battalion,Third Marine Division, I was known as "Bravo 1," sometimes, "Bravo 1 Actual," when it was necessary co let it be known that the actual commander was on the horn (radio). As the platoon sergeant and second in command, Wharton was "Bravo 1 Alpha."
"If you would go check on the status of the other three tanks so we can be ready co move out when the others gee back, the Corps and I would be ever so grateful," I responded.
"Aye, aye, sir," and, with an elaborate left-hand salute and a smile, Wharton moved off to attend co business. He was so bow-legged - and a little pot-bellied - that he seemed to rock where he was going, rather than ambulate. However, I considered myself and the platoon fortunate co have him for platoon sergeant. What he might have lacked in judgment, he more than made up for in enthusiasm and "can-do." A few days earlier, I had to chew him out because, as they came through the main gate at Khe Sanh, his tank's sprocket had caught a few strands of wire which ended up tearing out a couple hundred feet of concertina, before someone, not Wharton, had noticed. The fact that he had enjoyed several beers coming in had played no small part. He and his crew had spent several hours cutting out the wire from the tank's track. I had to explain to headquarters what had happened. Still, Wharton was a good Staff NCO - it just cook a little extra supervision sometimes. Plus, I liked him, as did most of the ocher troops.
About twenty minutes later, I had just finished brushing my snags (teeth) and my other ablutions after breakfast when Lance Corporal Jack Butcher came running up, "Lieutenant , 1-deuce and 1-3 have really gotten into something. I was monitoring the radios and it sounds like it's really hit the fan."
I ran to my tank, found my crew already there, and told them to crank up the engine so they could come up on their radios without draining their [ batteries. Soon, Iwas listening to my men out with the sweep team, as one / tank talked to the other or to the infantry on the land line," I rapped out orders.
Two "aye, sir's," and they were off. Cerda was the TC of B-15, which I often used when I went out. I didn't know that Lance Corporal John Cox, gunner, Butcher, loader, and PFC Clay Larabell, driver, had drawn straws to see who would go on the mission. Butcher drew the short straw and remained behind. Cerda would go as the tanks, spotted some enemy, and the tanks brought them under fire. The tanks and the mine sweep team were then immediately brought under heavy fire, severely damaging the tanks and wounding many of the two tank crews and the sweep team members.
I could get only snatches, ". . . over to your right (the sound of machine I guns in the background) . . . . . a whole load of 'em in the bushes . . ." and the sound of the 90mm guns firing in the distance.
"Bravo 1-deuce, this is Bravo 1, over," I came up on the net. "Bravo 1, this is 1-2, over," came Kellogg's strained response. I could tell by Kellogg's heavy breathing and fluctuating voice that things were hot.
"1-2, what's goin' on?"
"Looks like we woke somethin' up. Started out small, just a couple of shots after the grunts . . . [static] and all hell broke loose. Over."
"1-2, you're breaking up a little. “How'r y' doin'?"
"Okay, so far. Busy.”
"Keep at it. Keep me informed as You get a chance."
“Roger 1-2 out”
Bravo 1-3, this is Bravo 1, over," I tried my other tank.
"One, this is 1-3. Our sit rep is the same. Lotsa gooks. Scramblin', over."
That was Buzz.
"Do it to 'em. Lemme know. Out.”
"Butcher (Lance Corporal Jack Butcher, a Canadian volunteer), get Wharton for me. Cerda (Corporal Rene Cerda), see if you can raise regiment on the land line,” I rapped out orders.
Within minutes, Sgt. Wharton came rocking up at full speed - and puffing. "Yes sir."
"You probably know by now that Kellogg and Conklin have gotten into it. Sounds big enough. Get the other tanks ready to roll. I'm gonna try to get permission to go get 'em and help them out. Stay up on the radio."
Without waiting for Wharton to respond, I went to our make-shift comm shack to see if Cerda had regiment up on the land line.
"They're lookin' for someone, Lieutenant.
“Nothin' yet. Not sure they even know what's happenin' out there," Cerda volunteered. "Stay with it." "Yes sir."
Frustrated, I walked back toward my tank.
I looked up, squinting into a hot, brassy-pan sky. My cammies were already attaching to my skin with sweat-glue. Day certainly got hotter. I Wished regiment would get its act together so I could help my men. I could hear the tanks' guns booming in the distance, the stitching sound of the machine guns fainter, but there.
The ambush consisted of units from several NVA regiments and divisions. It was prematurely sprung when the mine sweep detail, accompanied by two Bravo Company, 1st Platoon tanks, spotted some enemy, and the tanks brought them under fire. The tanks and the mine sweep team were then immediately brought under heavy fire, severely damaging the tanks and wounding many of the two tank crews and the sweep team members.
After they had taken several RPG's, Corporal Conklin was hit in the face and totally incapacitated (He lost sight in one eye and later received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for this action.)
Corporal Kellogg deployed his tank effectively in protecting the infantry sweep team members and attacking the enemy. His tank killed several RPG teams. In at least nineteen instances, he approached craters where NVA were concealed, then fired his main gun right over their positions to stun them with the 90 mm's concussion. Exposing himself to enemy fire and risking his life, he would lob a grenade into the craters to finish the job. In the course of the battle, Kellogg also employed the tank 's M3A l "grease gun" in killing NVA when they were too close to the tank to use the main gun.
Conklin's tank had been hit. Its blast deflector was canted up about forty-five degrees. Conklin radioed that he had been badly wounded. To protect that tank, Kellogg immediaely maneuvered his tank in between the damaged tank and the NVA and continued to fight.
Kellogg's tank was heavily engaged when it took another RPG in a weak area of the turret near the range finder, injuring all crewmen in the turret.
Kellogg received over seventy wounds of varying severity to his face, throat, both arms, both hands and his chest. Extremely bloody, he fell to the floor of the turret. His loader, "Sugar Bear" (Lance Corporal Charles Lehman) thought he was dead. Fortunately, he wasn't. (Efforts have been made to elevate Kellogg's Bronze Star with Combat "V").
The cavalry arrived, mostly on time. I had gone over to regimental HQ and finally gained permission to take two more tanks, B-15 and B-14 and infantry out to the ambush. I ordered Wharton to remain behind to coordinate while I was out. By chis time, it was about ten in the morning. The sun was a major player, well up in the sky and frying all of us.
"I-deuce, 1-3, this is One, over," I called.
"This is 1-3," came back Conklin. "I-deuce," responded Sugar Bear. "Get back to base. We'll cake it from here. Well done."
But Cricket, driver in Kellogg's tank, couldn't see through his fractured driver's 'scope; so Sugar Bear had to back him all the way to the base, which was only 300 or so yards away, peeking through the intermittent smoke and flames where RPGs had set clothing stashed in the gypsy rack afire. Then Regiment wouldn't let Beelzebub, B-12, through the wire due to its still-fiery coiffure. Cricket (Stanley Williams) came back out to the ambush site on B-11, as the driver, after Kellogg's tank returned to base. (Efforts have been made co elevate Lehman's award.)
Finally allowed co join the fight, my two tanks, B-15 and B-14, led two companies of 2/1 in six-by's, with at least a squad of infantry aboard each tank, into the fray.
Upon disembarking, the two headquarters groups of the infantry were almost immediately wiped out by NVA rockets and mortars, leaving the infantry without most, if not all, of their officers. Corporal Cerda saw one of the infantry captains take at least three bullets in his chest.
All units came under heavy fire. From my vantage point in the tank cupola, I helped to direct the almost-leaderless infantry by leaning out of the cupola to point out enemy positions and help organize their attack.
As I was occupied with the infantry and the other tank, B-14, as well as coordinating with the base, Corporal Cerda ran fire missions for my tank. Cerda and I both took some hits. Cerda frequently exposed himself in the loader's hatch to locate the enemy and co help direct the tank's fire.
On several occasions, he was wounded in the upper body, head, and later near his neck. Not with standing his many wounds, Cerda never complained and continued to keep a sharp eye out, often warning me of approaching enemy, while at the same time rapidly loading the main gun and changing the barrels on the .30 caliber machine gun and reloading it - daunting tasks even without wounds in the heat of Vietnam and in the cauldron of battle.
The fighting was intense for all of us. At one point, I ordered Baddgor's tank, B-14, to "scratch my back" with machine gun fire and a canister round, because NVA were climbing up on my tank. Lance Corporal Rick Oswood, their gunner, wiped out an RPG team that was caking aim at our tank.
Suffering from both shrapnel wounds and a gaping hole in his leg, Baddgor and his loader, PFC Ray Barden, ran the tank because Oswood took shrapnel in his face and upper body from the RPG round which wounded Baddgor's leg. With only his bare hands, Baddgor changed the hot .30 caliber machine gun barrel several times, ignoring the blistering burns. (Corporal Baddgor died several years ago of cancer caused by Agent Orange. Efforts have been made to elevate his medal award from Navy Commendation with Combat "V"). I finally ordered Baddgor's tank back co the base for reinforcements.
During this engagement, which lasted many hours, our tank, B-15, took over thirteen RPG hits, which wounded everyone in the turret multiple times. The radio antennas were shot off, the radios were out, and the turret power was gone, requiring the turret and the guns co be operated manually. Cerda's com-cord to his helmet had been cut by RPG shrapnel; so, he just kept loading and our brave gunner, Lance Corporal Cox, just kept firing.
The infantry were almost out of ammunition and were preparing for hand-co-hand combat.
Smoke began to fill the turret. The engine was on fire and pulling the fire extinguishers didn't help. I ordered gas masks to be put on. The tank continued to fight. Most of the tank rounds and machine gun ammunition were expended and Cerda was struggling with the brass.
Then flames came up into the turret. I remember wondering two things: "Would some postcards which I had placed in the turret to be mailed later - would they ever get mailed? And what was I missing for dinner later that night back at the base?"
It wasn't until replacements finally came that we evacuated the tank, now on fire. I helped Cerda out of the turret and carried him to a nearby bomb crater where the crew continued to fight with pistols, grenades, and the tank's grease gun. (Efforts have been made to elevate Cerda's Silver Star.)
When an ammo resupply truck, headed back to the base, came by, I jumped out in from of it, waved it down, and got all of us aboard and back to the base to get medical attention. Cerda and I were later medivac'd, making it about half my platoon of heroes that was medivac'd that day - but not one of my men was ever killed while I had the platoon.
Our tank, B-15, was later disarmed and buried in place . The after-action report indicated over 600 enemy killed by tank rounds in that immediate area, a day that "alters and illuminates our times," as Walter Cronkite would in- tone.