Vietnam Personal Accounts


"Heads, You Win. Tails . . . "

by Robert E. Peavey

Bravo Co., 5th Tanks and Charlie Co., 3rd Tanks, 1968 – ‘69

Author of, Praying For Slack – A Marine Tank Commander in Vietnam


    It was just a simple coin toss as if it was the start of some game. The two tank commanders watched as the coin fell to the ground. I would soon find out that it didn’t signal the start of a game but rather the end of the game for some. When the coin hit the ground they both bent over straining to see the outcome. One of the TCs was very displeased.

The driver and I were on top of our tank, he checking the fluid levels and I grabbing as many cans of .30 as I could reach in the bustle rack behind the turret. As the tank’s gunner, I had shot up a lot of machinegun ammo that afternoon. I looked over at Richards, the driver— he too had seen the coin toss. He turned to me and we just looked at one another, neither of us understanding what is was we just witnessed. Our loader, Sgt. Hearn, was inside the tank moving around what little 90mm main gun ammo we had left. He was pulling the hard to get to rounds stored in the tank’s hull and moving them up into the turret’s easier to reach ready rack. He never saw the coin flip.

We had just ended a full day of fighting around the railroad berm on Goi Noi Island about 20 miles southwest of Da Nang. We had been working with units of 2/7, 3/7 and 3/27 pushing the NVA back towards the berm that divided the island. It had been a running engagement the entire day, each side giving as good as it got. Mortars had fallen continually among the grunts and the 120-degree heat took as many casualties as had the enemy. Had it not been for the two Skyhawks that showed up late in the day loaded with "nape & snake", I don’t think we could have taken that berm— and the jet’s knew it too. With their runs completed, they announced their departure with a thrilling flyby 50 feet off the deck and right over our lines, pulling up into a victory roll as they disappeared into the sky— they knew they had saved us. The grunts easily walked up the 20-foot berm and were now consolidating their position, licking their wounds.

Staff Sergeant Embesi, returning from the coin toss, climbed up on the tank using the front tow hook as all tankers did. He announced that we would be the "weapons" tank and to get ready to start receiving guns, packs and equipment from the grunts. A few minutes’ later strangers were coming over to the back of our tank handing up M-16s, 782 Gear, helmets, and all the stuff carried by this war’s infantryman. There was much gear coming up to us. We had to neatly stack it on the armor plate over the engine and tie it all down. I gave no thought as to where all of the stuff came; I just didn’t want it to interfere with the operation of the turret. I assumed it was gear left on the battlefield by the wounded. Three days with no sleep left us too groggy to do much thinking.

I looked over at the tank 100 feet from ours, the one from which Embesi had just returned, and I just froze, transfixed by the sight. There were half a dozen grunts passing up the bodies of their fallen comrades. The tank’s crew was doing the same as us— stacking what they were given on the armor plate. It was a surrealistic scene— as if the grunts were offering sacrifices to the tank itself.

It was the voice below me that broke my gaze. I don’t know how many times it had called up to me. The voice’s owner was holding half a dozen weapons over his head. He looked in the same direction that had riveted my attention and then back at me, "Just be glad it ain’t you, man" as I took the guns from him. "They weren’t as smart as me and you" he went on to say. I looked over again as more dead Marines were being passed up to the tank’s crew.

If we were the "weapons" tank then they had to be "body" tank. Suddenly the ramifications of the coin toss came clear to me. The losing tank commander would have blood seeping into his engine compartment through the grill doors. The insufferable smell would have to be endured by the tank crew for months.

What had seemed so bizarre on a battlefield as a simple coin toss suddenly took on a new implication. The coin toss was made by two veteran tank commanders who knew what had to be done next. It was my introduction to the brutality of the next 10 months I had left on my tour.

The incident occurred in Mid-May, 1968, on Operation Allen Brook during what would be later called, Mini-Tet. It was part of an NVA offensive that took place across I Corps and would prove to be as fatal for the NVA as Tet had been but with even larger casualties on both sides. May of 1968 would prove to be the bloodiest of the entire war.