Vietnam Personal Accounts

My Tour of Duty with Ontos

by R. Scott Berry, 1998 Alpha Co., 3rd Antitanks, 1966-67

I was in Khe Sanh from May 1967 until the end of November 1967. I was an Ontos crewman. My unit was 2nd Platoon, "A" Company, 3rd Antitank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division. I came into country October 28, 1966. I was assigned to Charlie Company, which was stationed on "Finger 5" next to Hill 55, in the Danang area. I was assigned to 2nd Platoon that was at An Hoa, where there was a small airstrip that could handle planes up to the size of C-123's. Monsoon season made the roads a mire of deep mud that only Amtrak's could easily traverse.


For those who don't know what an Ontos is (or should I say was, as they are no longer in service), it's a nine-and-a-half-ton tracked vehicle armed with six 106mm recoilless rifles, four .50 caliber spotter rifles, and a .30 cal (Browning) machine gun. Ideally, a crew of three manned each vehicle; some vehicles only had two crewman. The Ontos has half inch thick armor, that will stop .30 cal. and below. The Ontos has a top (governed) speed of 25 mph. It was 'highly maneuverable. It was originally designed as a tank killer.


In 'Nam, we use HEPT (High Explosive Plastic Tracer) rounds mostly, and some HEAT (High Explosive Antitank) rounds. When we got the Beehive rounds, they were very effective for clearing out tree lines of enemy snipers. The 106mm Beehive round contained 9500 flechettes. There was a variable fuse on the nose of the round that let you set the detonation from "M.A." (Muzzle Activating), where the fired round would go out 75 meters and then detonate, or the fuse could be set to detonate the round at different distances up to 3300 meters. The M.A. setting was reliable. The other settings were not always as reliable.


We had trouble getting parts for our vehicles, especially the hard, rubber-tired steel "road wheels" that rode on the tracks. Chunks of rubber would break off these road wheels. In monsoon season, we would take 30-weight oil and paint it all over the 106's, .50's, and the .30 cal. to keep them from rusting.


At Delmar in Camp Pendleton, we went through Ontos Crewman School. They told us that the word ONTOS is Greek for "Thing." After humping hills at San Onofre at Pendleton in ITR, (Infantry Training Regiment), I was glad when they pulled a group of us out after the third week of ITR and put us in the Ontos school. It sure beat walking, and you could carry more personal items with you in 'Nam.


The one big drawback is that we tended to draw heavy fire. Fifty-calibers would go through the Ontos easily, and several Ontos were taken out with RPG's. (We lost one Ontos with two crewman in late 1966 [November] to a "wooden shoebox" mine in an area that had been already swept for mines by the daily morning mine sweep. I believe this was Highway 1, "Freedom Road." It's been a long time since I talked about this, so excuse the lapses in memory.) There were five Ontos in a platoon, a platoon commander, a platoon sergeant, a mechanic, and the crewman on the Ontos.


We went to the Bob Hope Christmas Show in Danang in December 1966. In January 1967, we went on a BLT (Battalion Landing Team) with 3/9 (Third Battalion/Ninth Marines) to Camp Hansen in Okinawa via ship. We left Danang Harbor at 2:30am when the Marines on board were sleeping. The next morning, out to sea, 90% of the Marines were seasick. Most had never been on a ship before. The "green" Marines were using the heads, sinks, showers, and any other available receptacles. The sailors were not very happy about this. I'll never forget that first morning breakfast on that ship--"creamed eggs!" (I declined.) To this day, I have never heard of "creamed eggs."


We refurbished our vehicles and equipment in Okinawa and after five weeks; we headed back to Vietnam on another ship. (I believe the first ship was the AKA-106, [Attack Cargo Transport?]) maybe named the USS Cabildo? The ship we took back to 'Nam was an LSD (Landing Ship Dock)? The 3rd Mar. Div. had moved up north to the DMZ area, and the 1st Mar. Div. moved up to the Danang area. Our platoon was then attached to "A" Company, 3rd Antitank Battalion. We were in Camp Carroll for a short time. One vehicle and crew went to another unit, supposedly temporarily, but we never saw them again. Two vehicles and crew went to Gio Linh, and two vehicles and crew, with the platoon commander and platoon sergeant, went to Khe Sanh. I was in Gio Linh.

Gio Linh was 2100 meters from the DMZ. Con Thien was seven miles east of us. At Gio Linh, everything was dug down in holes and bunkers as every night between 11:00am and 1:00am, the VC would drop mortars on our small firebase--average 20-30 a night. They were close enough that you could hear them dropping them in the tubes with the "cadunk" sound, and then the whistling as the round came in, and then the explosion of detonation.


One afternoon, we mounted up, and a large entourage of grunts, two tanks, two Dusters with their twin 40mm's, and our two Ontos, left the perimeter of Gio Linh and went out to the fire break to await large helicopters bringing in large wooden towers. The firebreak at this time was 200 meters wide and was bare dirt. (Many years later I found out how this was cleared--Agent Orange.) The firebreak was ultimately supposed to be 800 meters wide, going from Gio Linh to Con Thien, and was to have a series of manned wooden towers along its border. The idea was to keep the NVA from filtering down from the North through this area. I believe they gave up on that project. That day, when we were all on line sitting in the scorching sun on the bare dirt of the fire break waiting for the choppers with the wooden towers, we were told it was 140 degrees.


We started taking mortar fire from the north. After numerous close rounds to our troops and vehicles, the enemy ceased firing after artillery from Gio Linh fired on their positions. Finally, a large chopper brought in a wooden tower and placed it on the firebreak. At Gio Linh, the Army had four 175mm artillery pieces. They had very long barrels, and were on tracks. These were on the north perimeter. The Marines had five 105mm towed units, set up in the usual large circle-shaped battery position.


One day, we took a couple of incoming enemy rockets. That was odd, as we were only used to the nightly mortar attacks. And then one evening around 6:30pm when I was going to late chow after my two fellow Ontos crewman (Sgt. Mac from Chicago and L/Cpl Reavis from Indiana) returned from chow to relieve me from our position on the south perimeter, I was in the large GP (General Purpose) tent that was dug down; into a large three foot deep hole. I was in the process of declining the slop that was being served, figuring I'd go back and eat some "C Rats," when what sounded like a screaming Phantom jet with its afterburners on, went over my head, and exploded out in the minefield and wire on our perimeter. Another Phantom jet went screaming over my head and exploded. I then realized it wasn't a Phantom--it was enemy artillery. I expected them to drop several rounds on us and then stop, but it just kept coming and coming. I had been shot at with small arms, mortared, and been in rocket attacks, but this was the worst. The incoming scream of those rounds was terrifying and something I shall never forget, because you know they are either going to get you, or they are not, and there isn't much you can do to prevent it except pray.


During one lull in between rounds, there were about four of us hunkered down in a corner of that big, wide hole of the mess tent--we heard a Marine calling for help. We looked up, and saw a Marine that was not hit, but obviously suffering from shell concussion. He was in a daze. We told him to get down in the hole with us, but he either couldn't hear us or was just too dazed to understand. We grabbed his hands, and just as we pulled him down into the hole, a round came in, and exploded behind us about fifty feet away, fortunately above ground, and not in the big wide hole we were in. The concussion slammed us down into the corner of the hole and temporarily deafened us for a few minutes. It was like two giant hands coming together on your ears. When rounds hit close, the shrapnel sounded like it was ripping the air. The shelling stopped for a short time. I ran back to my vehicle and fellow crewman. There were craters and shell diameter-sized entry holes in the ground all over. My small bunker and two crewman and Ontos were okay. The only damage suffered to our Ontos was shrapnel cut off the two metal radio antennas, and the ammo can and its belted .30 cal ammo on the machine gun was pierced by a large piece of shrapnel.


I sat on the front of the Ontos that was sitting in a hole dug out by a bulldozer, with the loose dirt pushed up behind. I had the dry heaves as I tried to regain my composure. As a grunt Lt. and Sgt. were checking the lines, the heavy shelling started again. Instead of taking cover in my bunker that was about forty feet away, I opted to take cover underneath my Ontos. I don't know how I got under there wearing my helmet and flak jacket, but I did. {I was a lot slimmer back then.) The grunt Lt. and Sgt. took cover on the ground in the hole at the rear of the Ontos. And the artillery shells kept coming and coming. After awhile, you could just about tell where they were going to land, if they were going to be short or long. They say you never hear the one that gets you. Well, I don't know if you hear it explode, but I heard this one coming. I think my heart stopped for a second, as I stiffened up waiting for the impact, as this round sounded like it was going to be a direct hit on us. It came in screaming, and then there was a "wump" sound, and the ground shook. I held my breath, waiting for the explosion. It didn't explode. The grunt Lt. asked the grunt Sgt. where that round hit. The Sgt told him, "Don't move, I must be sitting on it!"


After another long duration of incoming artillery rounds, it stopped for a few minutes at which time I ran to my bunker, and the two grunt NCOs went back to their positions. We saw that that one incoming round landed in the soft bulldozed-up dirt on our side of the slope, less than ten feet from where we had taken cover. There was a nice round neat hole where it had cut a path downwards into the loose pile of dirt. If that round had gone off, we probably would have been scattered over the countryside. We later learned that there was an NVA artillery battery (or two) that dropped approximately 2000 rounds on our small firebase in a 1 O-hour attack. They were dropping point-detonating and delayed fuse shells on us. The first rounds made direct hits on three of the Army's 175mm guns, and the fourth 175mm's powder pit was on fire, taking it out also.


Those extremely brave Marines in that 105ram artillery battery kept firing and were basically out in the open in the waist-high sandbag wall of the large circle containing their guns. One by one, the NVA artillery took them and their guns out. When everybody else was hunkered down, these guys were standing at their guns firing back as fast as they could. Those were some brave guys.

Both of our ammo dumps had been hit and were on fire, with our own ordnance detonating. It was pure hell that night. All our artillery was gone. We had two Ontos, two tanks, two twin 40 dusters, and on 81mm mortar. That was the extent of our heavy weapons. Our wire and large minefield on our perimeter was pretty chewed up with some of the rounds landing there, and detonating out mines. We expected a ground attack during the darkness. All the other firebases were getting hit at the same time, so they could not support us with any artillery fire.


A couple hours after it started, we got a couple of Bird Dog spotter planes coming in from the south but when they got close to us, the NVA were shooting air bursts at them and coming close. After midnight, we got two Phantoms in that dropped their ordnance but when they came into the area, the NVA stopped shooting. When the Phantoms left to rearm, the NVA started on us again. The Phantoms were never able to locate the exact position of the NVA artillery. We had heavy casualties. We did get a medevac chopper in for some of the wounded. Heat tabs that burn with a very low blue flame, were arranged in a large circle to mark the LZ (Landing Zone). Just after the medevac took off, and cleared the LZ with the wounded, the NVA zoned in on the LZ and dropped several rounds on it, but didn't get the medevac.


All night, the artillery continued. It was constant. My Ontos Commander, Sgt. Mac, who was on his second tour, was a tough, lean, black Marine. He told me he had been raised Catholic but wasn't very religious. Sgt. Mac was even praying that night! Just before daylight, the shelling stopped. We came out of our holes. It seemed like almost every square yard of the ground was covered by jagged pieces of metal shrapnel, like leaves on the ground in the fall. Everything was blown up. I was so happy just to be alive. We were at Gio Linh for two months. That morning we left, and went to Camp Carroll.


A short time later, we were informed that our Platoon Commander was killed on Hill 861 while he was in a five man recon team. This was the precursor to the "Hill Battles." Our Platoon Commander was 1st Lt. Phillip Sauer. When I first came into the unit, he was a 2nd Lt. He was a gung ho Marine. He always wanted to personally get into the action. I was told that when he was going to go up Hill 861 to see if he could get the "pigs" (Ontos) up there, they tried to talk him into taking an M-14 or one of our "grease guns"' (.45 cal. submachine gun). He declined and took his beloved Colt .45 auto that he had the armorer tighten up in Okinawa. You know the rest of the story--he covered the escape of the Marines left alive in the five-man team with his .45. I was told that he was cut in half by a .50 or .51 caliber NVA machine gun, and that they recovered half his body eight days later. He was put up for a Navy Cross. His family was from the East Coast.


Anyway, I ended up at Lejeune for a couple of months after getting back to the world, and then got orders for HMX-1, Marine Helicopter Squadron One (Presidential Helicopter) as a Marine Security Guard. I flew with the Vice President (Spiro Agnew) twice. After 17 months in HMX-1 at Quantico and the subunit at Anacostia (U.S Naval station Washington D.C.), I got orders for NSA (National Security Agency) at Marine Barracks, Fort Meade, Maryland where I finished my four years in the USMC, April 28, 1970. The names of some of the guys in my 2nd Platoon, 3rd A.T.'s: Cpl Yates, Snead, Reavis, Sgt. Mac, Bosman (or Bozeman) (Saul Bozeman and another), our mechanic Chapin, Cpl Wright, Peterson, Rupert from California, Pucci from New York, and Ray Updyke from Pennsylvania.