Lamplighter missions in Viet-Nam

The November ’05 issue of Military carried an article by Col. Richard E. Bond titled “The Lamplighter.” It involved artillery fire being used to light the way so a helicopter could go out on a dark and stormy night to pick up a wounded soldier. The unit involved was the 2nd/19th Artillery and Bond stated, “There is no record of this type of accomplishment having been achieved before or since.”

Although such missions were not routine, they had been done before and by the same artillery battalion. I am aware of at least three that took place from late 1966 through early 1968 while I served with 2nd/19th and 1st/8th Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Division. The 2nd/19th was a pretty innovative unit with a lot of “firsts” to their credit. There probably were others before because the first time I was involved with one, it went too smoothly to have been a totally untried mission.

My first mission
My first experience was during the late summer or early fall of 1967. HQ/2nd/19th Artillery was on LZ English in the southern Bong Son Plain at the time and they controlled the artillery fire for the whole area. Any forward observer called “Tiger 8 this is_______; fire mission.” Sometimes the message had to be relayed because of distance or terrain, but HQ/2nd/19th cleared the target, assigned a frequency, assigned a firing battery or two, and checked initial data for each mission. This was one of those that we didn’t like to hear.

An infantry platoon plus had left their company and set up an ambush in the An Lao. The ambush put an observation post on the trail 50 to 100 meters either side of the “kill zone.” Two VC walked down the trail right into the ambush. When the American platoon started firing, an NVA company swept down from the mountain behind the Americans and overran them before they even got out a call for help. There was a soldier from the observation post closest to their company perimeter who was able to evade and run back to the company. The company commander assembled the rest of the company and set off to rescue his platoon, if possible.

When they arrived, they found there were still some wounded alive who had either hidden themselves or played dead. Some of the others had been executed by the NVA and there were those killed during the battle. The NVA fled the scene as the American company approached.

The company commander needed illumination to find his dead and wounded, as well as high explosives in the direction the NVA had fled. He also called for helicopters to pick up the dead and wounded through his forward observer.

The HQ/2nd/19th Artillery Fire Direction Control (FDC) in the bunker with “On the Way” spelled out in red sandbags on the roof, rushed into action. The fire direction officer, Lt. Lambert, who had previously been a forward observer, and the S-3 officer, Major Paul Polk, started delegating responsibility to different people in the FDC. Major Vernon Gillespie, commander of 2nd/19th Artillery, was soon in the FDC.

In the days before satellite navigation the best way to find the company at night was to fly the valley around the south end of the range of mountains that separated the An Lao Valley from the Bong Son Plain. A medevac helicopter, a CH-47 Chinook from 228th Aviation, and gunships from D/229th Aviation would fly the mission. Since the route had several right angle turns, it was necessary to have three different artillery batteries involved; if I remember correctly, those came from three different battalions — 2nd/119th had two batteries involved, 1st/30th (a 155mm towed unit) that had been placed on a ridge between the Bong Son Plain and the An Lao by CH-54 helicopters, and a battery from 2nd/17th Artillery which, like the 2nd/19th, was a 105mm unit but with M101 instead of the M102 airborne howitzers of 2nd/19th.

SSgt. Lafferty, Billy Stark and Moriarty started checking data with the batteries to get illumination every kilometer and at the turn points which got two rounds at once. It was also necessary to make sure that any of the junk from the illumination rounds and the rounds themselves were not likely to have a nighttime meeting with the helicopters. That meant that the helicopter crews needed specific instructions as to routes and altitude, which were relayed over landline from the FDC. Those were verified by radio as the helicopters passed the illumination markers or signposts.
The helicopters got illumination along their route both out and back and the units involved were pleased, except for the grisly cargo of two of the helicopters when they returned to English. Since I met the CH-47, I was not pleased to hear the message sent to MACV referred to the situation as “moderate casualties.”

Other missions

In late December 1967, D/1st/8th Cavalry started moving out well before daylight so they could surround a village that reportedly held some NVA and VC soldiers in what was referred to as a cordon mission. SSgt. Doward Jones and his RTO were passing me to the right of the trail when Jones tripped an explosive booby trap. Several of us went to the ground and I jumped up to tackle the RTO who was wounded in the face and chest. We gathered the wounded around Jones and moved them to an open area about 40 meters away where a medevac could safely land. Illumination rounds were then fired to lead the medevac up the Bong Son Plain to us. They used their compass to get back to the much larger target of LZ English. In spite of the delay, the cordon mission was successful mostly because Tom Hemphill and a friend discovered the underground hiding place of a large group of NVA by accident.

In early February 1968 D/1st/8th was up west of Quang Tri near a place that would later be named LZ Pedro. During the middle of the night a 122mm rocket battery started firing on the bases at Quang Tri. The NVA rocket battery was set up only about 400 meters outside our perimeter in a small gully. Due to a map mistake at HQ/1st/8th we couldn’t get clearance for HE from 2nd/19th. I then went to a different frequency and contacted an 8-inch unit that could reach the target.

Since I was artillery recon sergeant with D/1/8 and wanted to do the most damage to the NVA with the first rounds, I called for high explosive and fuse variable time which would get explosions about 20 meters off the ground and a good beating area. The problem was that at 400 meters, we were “danger close.” I called the message up and down the line so that everyone would get in his hole with helmets on. Lt. Florence, who was the 3rd Platoon leader, was concerned that someone might not get the message so he started walking the perimeter. Somehow he got on a low ridge leading away from the perimeter in the dark. When he tried to correct, one of his troopers fired into the dark where he heard movement, wounding Lt. Florence.

It is important to remember that TET 68 had started just a few days before and the NVA were all over the place in the Quang Tri and Hue areas. When the word went out over the radio that we needed a medevac helicopter for Lt. Florence, there was a reluctance to fly to a small hill like many other small hills west of Quang Tri that just happened to be covered by dead water buffalo. It was way out in “Indian Country” at night.

I called HQ/2nd/19th Artillery on the radio and had them work up data to give the medevac helicopter illumination rounds as signposts to lead the helicopter to us. The helicopter didn’t get airborne until the illumination mission was fired a second time. Compared to the mission in the An Lao, figuring data for artillery was relatively simple. One of 2nd/19th Artillery’s own batteries fired the mission from the south and at nearly right angles to the line of flight for the helicopter. Unfortunately, I had to postpone using the 8-inch unit because their rounds would have been too close to the helicopter flight path.

The only fire on the correct location of the NVA rocket battery before they packed up and left was from the 81mm mortar with D/1/8. Capt. Conetto limited the ammo expenditure from the mortar because he was concerned we might need it for our own defense before the night was over. After the medevac mission for Lt. Florence was complete, the 8-inch unit could only fire on possible routes the NVA used to flee the area.

Innovation was pretty common in 2nd/19th Artillery. They started “artillery raids” where a battery would be flown into an area where there was a lot of enemy activity. They would shoot pre-selected targets and then pack up and fly back to a more secure base before the enemy could react. Major Vernon Gillespie even started his staff working on “artillery raid” plans across the DMZ into North Viet-Nam. The logic was that most of the NVA artillery was dug in so they could fire south and couldn’t react with counter battery fire if an American artillery unit showed up behind them and started blasting supply points. Political considerations kept the “artillery raids” across the DMZ from happening.

Scratch your back
Another term that 2nd/19th brought in during 1967 was “scratch your back.” A tank from the 69th Armored was disabled away from friendly infantry and other tanks in the Bong Son Plain and could neither move nor use the main gun. I told them to button up and I would “scratch your back” with artillery fire. High explosive with fuse variable time was used around the tank until other units could rescue them. The book “Tanker Sergeant” by Ralph Zumbro includes a description of that mission.

Richard Bond had reason to be proud of the performance of 2nd/19th Artillery in September 1968, but it wasn’t the first and only mission of that type.