THE REAL PANTHERS

CLICK ON ANY BLUE-BORDERED PICTURE OR DOCUMENT TO ENLARGE

TET OFFENSIVE - 1968

In the Afterword of ROE - Rules of Engagement I point out some of the differences between reality and my very fictional account of Charlie Company's fight at Long Binh-Bien Hoa on 31 January 1968.  Following are links to related original documents, reports, and first-person recollections of the Tet Offensive battle fought by the 2-47th Infantry (Mechanized) in the Saigon capital area.


"Panther Charlie Six", 1LT John E. "The King" Gross & "Six-Delta", Thomas "Bud" Tucker.  The author was the assistant driver and .50 machine gunner on this track during Tet.


1LT Brice H. Barnes, 2-47th Scout Platoon Commander. Lt. Barnes was awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the Tet battles.


Russ Vibbert obtained and provided the Tet Operations Log & Map (right). Russ was TC on Maj. Jones' track with A Company at Ho Nai village.


David Zabecki (center) joined Charlie Company as a rifleman on the same day as I did and manned the .50 on C-7 beside our C-6 track during Tet.  In a remarkable 41 year Army career, Dave rose to the rank of Major General and earned a PhD in Military History.  He is the Editor Emeritus of Vietnam Magazine and the author of numerous books and articles, including Battle for Saigon (link below).

2-47th INFANTRY OPERATIONS LOGS AND MAP - 31 JANUARY 1968


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S-3 MAP
VALOROUS UNIT AWARD

The 2-47th Infantry (Mechanized) was awarded the Valorous Unit Citation, the unit equivalent of the individual Silver Star, for the Battle of Long-Binh-Bien Hoa on 31 January 1968.  Click on the ribbon to read an extract of General Order 5 with the citation for the award.

 As with two other VUA's earned by the Panther Battalion, the award was made about a year after the cited action.  Most soldiers entitled to wear one or more of these awards never learned of the fact, as the unit awards do not appear on the individual DD214 record.  The other two awards were entitled "Saigon" and "Fish Hook".

LINKS TO ARTICLES ON THE PANTHERS' TET OFFENSIVE
Lt. Col. John E. Gross Recalls the Tet Battles of Bien Hoa and Long Binh
Originally published in Vietnam Magazine 2006
Battle for Saigon
Originally published in Vietnam Magazine 1990
Widows’ Village: VC Graveyard Tet 1968
Originally published in the 9th Infantry Division's newspaper, "Octofoil" April-May-June Issue, 1968
Brice H. Barnes - As Best I Remembered It: My Recollections of the Battle for Widows' Village, Tet 1968
Published online Military Order of the Purple Heart, Texas Capital Chapter 1919 Austin, Texas website.

 

THE REAL MONKEY'S UNCLE

One of the central "characters" in both CIB - Combat Infantryman Badge and ROE - Rules of Engagement is the M113 APC designated C-14 and named Monkey's Uncle.   The real C-14, the track assigned to the 1st Platoon, 4th (Weapons) Squad of Charlie Company, 2-47th Infantry (Mechanized) was a Chrysler V8 powered, gasoline fueled M113.  Later, long after my DEROS home to the World on 22 March 68, the unit was re-equipped with the safer, more reliable diesel powered M113A1 model.

Here's what C-14 looked like in the motor pool shortly after the 2-47th arrived in-country in December, 1966.  The M40A1 106mm Recoilless Rifle had been recently installed, the concertina wire customarily carried for use in laager is not yet rusty, and the panther has yet to be painted on the trim vane.

When I first saw it in early April, 1967, newly assigned to 14 as the FNG recoilless rifle gunner, both the track and recoilless were covered with a coat of fine, red dust.

Panther Charlie 14 in Tay Ninh Province during Operation Junction City in April, '67, my first operation in-country as an FNG. The track may be travel-worn after the long road march from Bearcat and through Saigon, but just check out that nice shiny recoilless rifle! The monsoon season was just around the corner, the dust would soon be traded for all-encompassing mud.

When the six-month rainy season set in the ubiquitous mud made everything more difficult.  Here you can see the long wooden boxes we built to replace the useless folding bench seats that came with the track.  These were filled with ammunition, and in the case of our track, all the platoon's demolitions. Once topped off and with the original vinyl pads in place, the benches made passable, if narrow, beds for the two most senior squad members. In the monsoon season I usually slept as best I could in my cramped driver's compartment where I could reach up occasionally and start the engine to keep the batteries charged. Failure to do so meant no radios and a track that would have to be slaved (jump-started) come morning.

When dismounted, which was frequent, I worked my way through the gamut of grunt squad assignments, from M-60 ammo bearer to my penultimate assignment aboard C-14 as the Browning M2 .50 caliber gunner. At last I had a corner of the track to call my own and I wasted no time making it homey. I stenciled my girlfriend's name on the gun tub  and taped her picture to the left of the gun behind celluloid.  My personal water-proof safe, a .50 ammo can, holds my stationary, letters, camera, etc.  On the opposite side of the cupola, unseen, is my Sony multi-band transistor radio over which we listened to Armed Forces Radio rock and roll.

Seven months into my tour of duty Bud Tucker moved up to drive the C-6 track and I replaced him as One-Four Delta. I learned to drive much as had Phil Lawson, complete to running over a prized case of chocolate milk and clipping an ancient village gate on the way to my first OJT training session on the highway.  Here I am with my badge of office, my driving goggles on my steel pot, prominently displayed on the headlight guard.

I promptly obtained some OD and white paint and covered over the previous name, Patsy, the name of Bud's wife. The initial custom in the company had been to name each rifle platoon's tracks beginning with their first letter. So among the First Platoon's tracks was Futhermucker , and Stateside Stompers was from the Second Platoon, and so on. But since Bud had already broken with the custom, I felt free to follow his lead. The life-lesson I learned from this was never to name a boat or other vehicle after a woman.  She dumped me the night I got home to the World. I learned many years later that Bud was divorced from Patsy, as well.

In the B&W Polaroid shot a secondary use for the 106 RR is seen. The elevated barrel made a dandy support for the makeshift poncho sun awning over the .50 MG cupola.

Lee Anne moving out of a Fire Support Base. The track was a lot of fun to drive - most of the time.  Driving through monsoon deluges and choking clouds of dust somewhat detracted from the joy. But we "Deltas" were all young kids who missed our cars back home, and tooling down the road at 40 mph in the 11 ton brute was a substitute, if a poor one.  The down side was the inherent danger of the task.  A mine, most often what is now termed an IED, was almost sure to kill or severely injure the driver who, unlike his fellow grunts riding on top, was stuck down inside the "hole". The same was true of a strike by a shaped charge from an RPG or recoilless rifle. The soft aluminum "armor" was of very little use in stopping the resulting devastation to the interior and a fire was almost inevitable.

Among her consorts in the Bearcat motor pool, 1-4 was always easy to locate because of the big "reckless rifle".  By this time its plywood trim vane, like that of its right-hand neighbor, is long gone, a victim of jungle busting.  This missing appliance, along with the absent track shrouds that had been removed from all the APC's to allow easier maintenance and replacement of thrown treads, were a couple of the factors that led to the saga related in CIB - the sinking of Charlie One-Four...

Here i am, standing morosely in my underwater driver's compartment looking at the offending giant log. I was highly pissed since I had recently helped the mechanics install a brand new motor for my formerly raggedy-running mount. The poncho-clad, L-T, who shall remain nameless, looks longingly at the remainder of his platoon ashore on the river bank. In case you are wondering, the officer did not fall overboard, break his leg, or get rescued by yours truly.  Other than these details, though, the actual incident was faithfully reproduced in Phil Lawson's misadventure.

 

1Lt. John Gross, Charlie Company CO, poses in a laager on Operation Santa Fe.  The track behind him is none other than my C-1-4. "Lee Anne".  About the same time I became a "two-digit-midget" (less than 100 days until DEROS) I would follow Bud Tucker over to The Kingdom, Charlie 6, as the King's assistant driver and .50 gunner. When Bud went home to Peoria I moved into the driver's seat.  That honor notwithstanding, to this day I consider my call-sign Charlie One-Four Delta.

 

 

Four views of a diorama I built depicting Lee Anne in laager. The platoon leader and squad leader study the map while the RTO makes a radio check and the M60 team prepares for the night's patrol. The driver is doing his daily PM, checking the six fluid levels under the hood, the '50 gunner smokes a cigarette and sips a warm Coke, and an off-duty grunt eats his C-rats sitting beside the ramp.

I built it in 1986, about the same time I began working on my novel, incidentally.

The model dressed as Monkey's Uncle for this pen and ink conversion used in the frontispiece of CIB - Combat Infantryman Badge.

 

 

THE REAL AND UNREAL ANIMALS OF CHARLIE COMPANY

Here we meet another of the real-life Panthers who inspired a character in the book.  Not the TC, Sgt. Rogers.  I'm speaking of Corporal Owl, the loyal one-eyed bird who inspired SFC Tolliver's pet aboard Maggie's Drawers.  How Owl came to join the grunts was exactly as related in the novel; he was wounded by a quick-acting grunt who butt-stroked the groggy bird in broad-daylight, then remorsefully nursed him back to health.  I don't know that he soiled Sgt. Roger's jungle fatigues the way he did Tolliver's.  Nor do I know why Rogers is wearing his CVC helmet backwards in this shot!

Several of the other animals in the books had their real-life counterparts. 

Tee Wee is an amalgam of a dog by that name in Charlie company and one called Sarge, whose personality was related by Jim Hottle and Klem Evans, if memory serves.  Both men had been infused into the Panthers from the 11th ACR where Sarge had been an honorary Blackhorse Trooper, legendary for his dislike of Vietnamese people. The attack of the farm girl on the causeway related in CIB was attributed to Sarge.

Ink is also a combination of several monkeys with similar habits from different units.  Feces throwing seems to have been a popular pastime among the GI simian set, as was beer tippling.

Ho-Chi-Ken the Chieu Hoi Chicken was a real rooster named "Charlie" captured by First Platoon in a hastily abandoned VC bunker complex.  Like his fictional counterpart, he was transported home to our Bearcat base-camp where he quickly assumed reveille duty.

We occasionally heard the unearthly, blood-chilling scream of a panther at night while on ambush patrol.  Although our Company Commander expressed a desire for us to capture a real panther mascot, no one was ever crazy enough to try.  Penelope the Purple Panther is a feline figment of the author's imagination.

Photo Credits: John Ax, Tex Bowers, Fred Geremia, Bill Hammons, Jerry Peitrowski, Jerry Raisanen, Oscar Walton, Russ Vibbert, Dave Zabecki - Panther Brothers, all.