MARINE CORPS TANKERS VIETNAM HISTORICAL Foundation's
Vietnam Personal Accounts
Flame Tank F-23 in Ambush Valley
by Guy Wolfenbarger
On September 5th I got word to be ready to move out the next morning
to relieve F-21 that had lost air pressure.
Mike Co. 3/26 and an escort from Bravo Co. Tanks left Camp Carroll in the rain. I met up with F-21 and Bravo 25 on the road outside of Charlie 2, and Bravo 25 took the lead back to CP.
The church yard where 2nd Platoon Bravo 3rd Tanks had been working
with 1/9 was the bad lands. I had worked it earlier in July with Alpha Co. 3rd Tanks in Operation Buffalo.
Since then I had been in the area 4 or 5 times. The brush was real thick and the rice paddies over grown.
On Operation Buffalo on July 6, we took out a Catholic church at Thon Tan Hoa known as the Four Gates to Hell. The church yard was a land mark for the NVA to sight in on. Why anyone would set up their CP there is beyond me. Nah Toa An Hoa church yard was on everybodyís map. 2nd Lt. Drnec was new in county and had not seen action or been in this area before.
The night of September 6th was quiet. The next morning a good friend from Columbus, Sgt. Larry Flora, threw a mud ball at my tank as he was going by. He gave me a thumbs up and thatís the last time I saw him alive. 2nd Lt. Drnec made me mount my 50 cal, back in the cupola. When itís in the cupola it is worthless mounted on its side with only 50 rounds of ammo. Lt Drnec didnít get the big picture. A flame tank only has a 30 cal, and 60 seconds of napalm. With the 50 cal, mounted on a tripod on top the tank commander has some real fire power.
India Co. 3/26 made contact before 1200. I got word from the tank commander of B-25 to move out, but stay in behind his tank. 2nd Platoon B Co. tanks was a heavy section: 3 gun tanks plus a flame tank F-23.
2nd Lt. Drnec wanted to know what I was doing. I saw the lead tank start to mire down in the paddy, so I stayed on high ground. That he headed straight out into the paddy was not good tank tactics. I didnít answer him on the radio. I stayed on high ground. The gun tanks fired a few rounds, and mortars started raining down. I dropped my 50 cal. out of the cupola and mounted it back on the tripod. The gun tanks moved on through the paddy and made it into the brush. As we got word to start to pull back, I saw NVA in the brush. They were in full battle gear and headed east.
My gunner L/Cpl Wayne Chapman was working the area with the 30 cal. coax. We had been on several operations together. On Operation Buffalo Wayne was my gunner. Wayne knew what to do. He had air pressure up and was ready to fire napalm. I donít think Lt. Drnec had seen a flame tank in action. Controlling napalm was easier than a load of diesel fuel. Napalm would stick and burn where diesel would roll in a blg ball of fire. If you had a load of napalm mixed for two or three weeks it would gel-up and stick to the side walls of the 350 gal. napalm tank. After firing old napalm we would get a load of diesel fuel and use it to break up the gel. We had a fresh load of napalm and all air tanks full.
If he had only backed into the paddy and pulled forward, he may not have been hit. I saw two RPG teams to right rear of B-21. The turret on B-21 swung around and fired at the RPG team. The Lieutenant said that they had been hit in the engine compartment and couldnít move. I moved up to cover B-21 and again requested to spray the tree line with napalm. The Lieutenant said, ďNo, the order was to fire into the tree line.Ē The two gun tanks fired canister rounds and 30 cal, into the brush. The Marines were pinned down in the open paddy and behind us. The r:nortar fire continued till it was almost dark. The night was going to be a long one.
C-2 and Con Thien fired ilumination rounds all night. We had it all going for us all night long. Puff came on station and covered the area in front of us most of the evening. Just after dark three Marines yelled up from the side of the tank. I told them to crawl under the tank and now I had three more sets of eyes for the long night ahead. With my crew and the grunts under the tank keeping watch I felt safer. I trusted Pappy and gave him the order to fire napalm if we got hit during the night. I really trusted him and my driver. They were really great tankers. Pappy said he needed 30 cal. amo. I got two cases of 30 cal. out of the gypsy rack. I was down to 500 rounds of 50 cal. myself. I grabbed 5 gallons of water off the back of the tank and some C-rations.
Around 2200 my driver cooked up some coffee and chow for us down in the driverís compartment with heat tabs. Taking turns at watch we settled in for the rest of the night. About 2300 my gunner saw movement about 30 yards in front of us. A lum went off just above the rice paddy, and we could see a foot moving in the tank track ahead of us in the rice paddy. The next morning when Kilo Co. came out to join up with us a grunt unloaded his M16 on the NVA RPG member. We slowly moved back toward the CP picking up KIAs and WIAs on the way. Sgt. Flora was loaded on the right front fender of my tank. As we moved back to the supply road I passed out all the water and C-rats I had to the grunts. We made our way back to Charlie 2. We got back to Charlie 2 and I loaded up with 50 cal. amo and M79 amo for a M79 I had picked up along the way. We took more incoming mortars on the supply road.
The afternoon of September 7th was quiet. We settled in and we settled in to a new CP area. I ordered more 30 cal. and 50 cal. amo from 3/26 supply officer. That night was quiet, and I set up in the battalion CPo The morning of September 8th was quiet. Battalion was having a morning meeting when we got more incoming.
Lieutenant Drnec jumped up on my tank and wanted in. I told him no, there was no more room. He opened the TCís hatch and jumped in on top of me. After a couple moments he decided that sitting beside 350 gallons of napalm wasnít a good idea. When the shelling lifted he opened the clam shell and stuck his head out. He hit the release with his shoulder and the clam shell smacked down on his head. I helped him get out of the turret, and me and my crew thought it was pretty funny. The rest of the day and night was reasonably quiet.
September 10th early in the morning supplies came in by chopper. The grunts always could get great stuff, and we loaded up on fresh fruit and goodies. As always the grunts didnít ever move out early. It took them till 0800 to 0900 to get it together. Around about 0830 we tied down all the supplies from the LC and were ready to move out. B-22 and B-25 were the lead tanks.
We started hearing heavy machine gun and AK-47 fire in the area ahead of us. B-22 threw a track or something and stopped on the side of the hill. B-25 moved out past B-22. I kept as close to B-25 as we could until we moved out of the brush. B-25 went up the next hill and began firing. I stayed at the east and south of the open paddy. My gunner opened up on the NVA out in the open paddy. It was something out of Hollywood. The NVA stood up out of nowhere and started across the rice paddy. With my 50cal. and 30cal. they were sitting ducks. We were at war now, real war.
In the book Ambush Valley by Eric Hammel, page 207, India Company (3-26) and Lima Company (3-26) platoon commanders tell the story as they saw it.
B-25 was ahead of me, slightly to my left with a lot of grunts between us pinned down with heavy mortar and machine gun fire. There were too many friendlies for us to fire any napalm. I saw smoke coming out of B-25. It had been hit, and the corpsman and the grunts were helping the crew out. The driver pulled down next to my tank and yelled that the NVA were coming down over the hill.
Several RPGs came towards B-23 and my tank. I told my gunner to light up and my driver to move out toward the top of hill so we could fire. Before we could fire I saw an RPG coming like a football. It struck my turret on the left side setting off the secondary fuel that we used to light the napalm. Fire immediately came around the napalm bottle and my driver was burned across his back and escaped through the driver hatch. My gunner had his arm burnt and we both got out through the TC hatch. As my tank exploded I started to jump off the rear, but I still had my com-helmet on. The com-chord jerked my head back and I landed on the deck. I thought Iíd been shot. I got up and to my surprise I wasnít wounded and jumped to the ground.
The driver of the gun tank saw the explosion and jumped out of his tank leaving it in gear. We were a few yard a few behind the gun tank when it started to roll down the hill with motor still running. The corpsman took my gunner and driver back up the tank trail we had just made. I made my way to a bomb crater where I found several Marines some of whom were wounded. I had my 45 and one clip. From that time on it seemed like an eternity until we could make it back to the CPo Just a dusk I got back to the CP.
My flame tank burned all night long. The gun tank rolled down to the edge of the open paddy. It continued to run all night. They tried to resupply us to take out wounded, but the choppers received heavy fire. Around 2200 the company commander of 3-26 decided he needed to disable the gun tank. I went to the edge of our perimeter with a rocketman who had LAAW and showed him where he should hit the tank turret to seize it up. When he fired the rocket his aim was high. The rocket ricocheted off the turret high into the air. As the grunt started back into the line he was shot by one of the grunts on line. Luckily the shot hit his flack jacket and knocked him down. The next thing all you could hear were four-letter words and a lot of yelling. We made our way back to where the gun tank-wounded were. It was a damp cold night.
The next morning the driver of B-25 and I made our way back to his tank. We found the NVA had been inside the tank and taken some of the c-rations off the back. We moved out, back up to the battalion CP. As soon as we met up with B-2 we headed out to the supply road where we met up with A Company Third Tanks and headed toward Charlie-2. At Charlie-2 the place was full of reporters. We took B-25 back to Camp Carroll.