Ralph Zumbro Tank Sergeant

ISBN 13: 9780671639457

Tank Sergeant

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9780671639457: Tank Sergeant
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From tearing roads through the jungle to blasting out Viet Cong positions, from convoy escort to rescue operations, the tank crews in Vietnam did it all. Here is the best account ever of this fascinating aspect of the Vietnam War: Sgt. Ralph "Zippo" Zumbro's evocative, action-packed memoir of a year with A Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor.

Always bold, sometimes reckless, the "tread heads" who manned "The Ape," "Assassin," and "The A-Go-Go" devised new combat tactics -- often in the heat of battle. Cut off from supply lines, they became master jury riggers and scroungers. They shared a unique perspective of Vietnam: from smiling Coca-Cola girls who betrayed you to Charlie, to buddies who stayed above the hatch a moment too long -- and took an anti-tank rocket in the chest; from impromptu fish fries to the Tet Offensive. When Sgt. Zumbro's tour of duty ended in June 1968, A Company was the most highly decorated unit in Vietnam.

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Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Arrival

When we deplaned at Pleiku Air Base, the first impression was the summer heat and the oppressive humidity -- our uniforms stuck to us like bandages. On the deuce-and-a-half ride across the city to Camp Enari (named for a lieutenant killed in one of the Cong's all too efficient ambushes), we got a glimpse of Asian culture. The people were attractive, oval-faced and almond-eyed, smaller in stature than Caucasians and graceful in motion. They welcomed us as guests, instead of as a foreign army. They smiled and waved as the trucks went by, and there was a lot of "Hi, GI," from the kids. The road out of the city and up to the camp gates was a familiar sight to any foreign-duty trooper. All the regular stores had been bought out, and had been replaced with the usual collection of soldier-oriented businesses, each designed to separate a serviceman from his pay as quickly and painlessly as possible.

The camp entrance, however, indicated that all was not sweetness and light. A heavily sandbagged bunker covered each side of the entrance, and armed MPs kept a wary eye on all traffic. Each bunker was equipped with an MG nest, and was part of a barbed-wire bunker line that encircled the post.

The replacement depot was the ordinary work-detail/local-indoctrination operation that we'd all been through. Presently I found myself in a jeep, headed for a tank company. The assignments NCO in the repple-depple hadn't been too encouraging.

"Tank crew, huh? Congratulations, you just became a professional mine detector."

I was a bit nervous.

"You took a little bothered, Sarge," said the supply clerk who had been sent to pick me up, the company's lone replacement.

"I don't know why the repple-depple types seemed to think that all a tank is good for is escorting convoys and checking for freshly-laid mines," I said.

"We've got plenty of time before you're due to report in. How's about a cup of coffee at the PX, and I'll fill you in?" I had learned that one of the first things you do on arriving in a new outfit is get acquainted with the supply and mess people, so off we went.

We settled in at a table underneath a slowly rotating ceiling fan, and he gave me the lowdown. "This is the most scattered company in any army; we're not even legally part of the 4th Division. Sixty-ninth Armor is really part of the 25th Division down at Chu Chi. But the 4th, up here in the highlands, has got a lot of territory to cover, so they asked the 25th to loan them a battalion of heavy armor -- and that was us. Then, when the spring monsoon left and the coastal paddy country began drying up, the Air Cav, down on the coast, started running into hardened defenses. They don't have any integral armor so they put out a call for help. General Peers, up here, offered to loan them one company, and shipped us out."

There was a large map of Indochina painted on one wall of the PX and, as he talked, he pointed to the company's area, gesturing with a half-burnt cigar. "Pleiku, here, is closer to the DMZ than the Delta, and closer to the Cambode border than the sea. That squiggly red line running east is Highway 19, and our 1st Platoon is responsible for security on the central section of it -- the hilly part. The tanks cover a section with their guns, and they're hooked up with the local infantry. It's good duty, in a way," he continued. "They've each got a local following and some girls. Not much action, though, unless you count the occasional mortar bombing, or a VC bridge wrecking."

Pausing to take a swig of coffee, he said, "Down the line, past An Khe, the next city is Qui Nhon, one of the ports. When the company moved, the bridges on the coastal highway couldn't take tanks, so they loaded us up on an LCVP, carried us up the coast, and we unloaded over on the beach at Bong Son."

"So that's where the outfit is now?" I asked.

"Well, not quite," he laughed. "Bong Son is about seventy-five miles north of Qui Nhon, and Company field base is at Landing Zone [LZ] English, just a bit north of Bong Son proper. Third Platoon is usually somewhere around, but I couldn't guarantee it. Second Platoon is farther out, in a place called An Lao Valley. Those platoons have the most action between 'em; there's something on the radio two or three times a week. Usually it starts with some infantry CO calling for help, and then the tanks call for more ammo."

"Are we talking about one company of just seventeen tanks?" I exclaimed. "That's a divisional area!"

"You got to understand, Sarge, the 69th are the only jungle-tankers around here, and the 4th says they need the other two companies over on the Cambode border."

Being used to European operations, my next question was, "How do you operate a tank in all that thick brush? I'm trained to hit T-54s at forty-four hundred meters."

"Sarge, I dunno, I'm no tanker, but if you get into one of those maneuver platoons, you'll be wishing that the Army put bayonets on the main guns." I thought he was exaggerating -- back then.

Arriving at Company Headquarters, I found a skeleton enough to keep mail and supplies headed in the general direction of field operations. The NCOIC, a staff sergeant, gave me a quick rundown of company organization. He told me how much gear to take to the field -- no more than one waterproof bag (you have to be able to carry with one hand and shoot with the other).

"Bunk in here," he said, indicating an empty squad bay. "Pick a clean bunk, haul your excess gear [it was almost everything] over to supply, and they'll get you outfitted with combat equipment."

Yeah, right; I turned in that seventy-five-pound bag of issue uniforms and an optimistic set of civvies. They fixed me up with little more than underwear, socks, poncho and liner, three pairs of fatigues, combat webbing -- and a .45 automatic. The supply sergeant advised, "You better pick up a few extra unders, if you intend to keep wearing jockey shorts. " At my questioning look, he chuckled, "Guys your size have a laundry problem; you're not much bigger than a Vietnamese, and the mama-sans who do the washing sometimes pinch off a few for their own soldiers. One tanker found a pair of his BVDs on a dead VC."

***

Before dawn the next morning, I was driven out to the helicopter field, making sure of two things: first, that I was on the right chopper; second, that the crew chief knew he had a green hand on board.

"Look," he said, "this is normally a milk run, but we have to go in low and drop off mail to a couple of remote LZs before we get to English, so we may take some fire. Can you handle an M60?"

"Sure. I've got full infantry skills, in addition to armor."

"I thought so," he grinned, looking at my parachute badge. "You'll be backup door gunner for this trip." He showed me where the extra ammo cans for the M60 were stored; then he checked his load lashings, muttered something into the intercom, and, with rotors shimmering in the sunrise, we lifted out.

The two bush LZs were just fortified hilltops, but English was a division headquarters, fully as large as Camp Enari. In vain, I scanned for tanks as the chopper settled down.

"I'm assigned to..."

But the crew chief cut in. "I don't know a damn thing about this base. The only time I know about an individual company is when it's out in the bush."

I helped them offload, and they lifted out, leaving me standing alone and somewhat bemused on an empty helipad. A jeep drove up and, with some relief, I saw A-1/69 on its bumper. Surprisingly the driver was a 1st sergeant. Tall, lean, and dark, he could have doubled for Rudolph Valentino, except for his southern accent.

"You're Zumbro?"

"Right," I said, handing over my medical records.

"I'm Sergeant Quinton. Hop in. You're going to 3d Platoon. They put in an order for a sergeant/gunner for the 3/4 tank -- and you're it. The heavy section moves out in half an hour."

While I was absorbing this jolt, he drove down the taxi lane, dodged a couple of aircraft, cut across the runway, and dropped off the embankment that supported it. Suddenly we were in the sorriest excuse for an armored base that I'd ever seen.

Six tanks were nosed into the embankment below the runway. Three of them were obviously in advanced stages of ordnance-level repair, and the other three were getting ready to move out. I noticed that each one had a giant, mean-looking tiger face painted on its bow and, on each radio antenna, a small black flag bearing a skull and crossbones fluttered gently in the humid breeze.

We were driving down a sloping dusty road, and on the left, past the combat vehicles, a tank retriever and a pair of five-tonners were parked next to a general purpose (GP) tent. Across the road were a field mess tent and another GP with its sides rolled up to expose rows of tables and folding chairs. Vietnamese KPs were cleaning up the remains of breakfast, and the top sergeant spotted me hungrily eyeing the food.

"Go scrounge a quick sandwich from the cooks and I'll send the platoon sergeant over. Nobody ever leaves my company hungry."

The platoon honcho, a mustachioed Georgia boy, folded himself into a chair across from me. "Welcome to 3d," he said, "We're a bit shorthanded now, and about to go bail some infantry out of a hole. We lost our lieutenant last week, so I'm it for the time being. I can't put an inexperienced man in command, you understand. But we're short of tank commanders [TCs], so you've got a choice: either go in under an experienced Sp5 in 3-3 over there, or sit this one out."

"Hell," I said, talking around a mouthful of bacon-and-egg sandwich, "a tanker is a tanker; I'll go in as a loader, if that's what you need."

That seemed to be the right answer and he smiled through his handlebars. "Just between you an' me, I'm checkin' out that boy over there for E6 and his own tank, so how's about usin' some of that gunnery school experience [how the hell did he find out about that?], and give me a report on his turret procedures."

"Sure thing, Sarge."

"Just call me Pappy -- everybody else does. Grab yer gear and come meet the crews. We've got to get gone."

I got a little nervous walking up to those combat-hardened professionals, and I could feel ten pairs of eyes measuring me up and down. Pappy gave the introductions and then, stepping back where all the drivers could see him, gave the hand signal to start the engines in all three tanks.

Climbing up on the 3-3 tank, I took note of the name that was stenciled on the gun tube: "Avenger." "She's a good tank," the Sp5 told me. "We're pretty proud of our accuracy." I chucked my bag into the bustle rack and started to climb down into the gunner's seat. "Not yet, Sarge," he said. "We don't have to worry about hostiles around here, and we have an hour's safe ride before we leave the road."

"You mean you don't worry about snipers?"

"Naw, we broke the local VC of that habit months ago, and Pappy keeps us out of rifle range of the hamlets most of the time, until we have to button up and go in."

"How in the hell do you break the sniping habit?"

"Well, only tanks can do it, but put yourself in Charlie's place. What would you do if every time one of your buddies shot at a tank, a 90mm shell and a burst of .50 blew him out of his perch, and white phosphorus and H.E. was indiscriminately tossed into the village?"

"I see what you mean. With that kind of response, there's no future in taking potshots."

By now the small column had left the base entrance behind, turned north on Highway 1, and was working its way through the small settlement that had grown up around the LZ. The buildings were all straw-thatched wattle and plaster construction, single story dwelling/shop operations. Most were mom-and-pop businesses with living quarters in back and shops in front. When working hours started, they just opened up the front of the living area and put out their wares. This particular group seemed to concentrate on GI services such as laundries, souvenirs, and bars.

The heavy traffic was slowing us down. The streets were clogged with a mix of animal traffic, basket-carrying pedestrians, bicycles, and a popping, sputtering collection of three-wheeled buses. These vehicles, called "ditty wagons," were the bane of high-speed traffic. Underpowered and always overloaded, they were always in the way at the worst possible moment.

"You got to watch 'em," the Sp5 was saying. "If they start to veer to one side, it means they're about to turn the other way."

"But what if you're in a hurry? How do you get them out of the way?"

"No problem : one burst out of the co-ax is louder than any horn, and they all head for the ditch. Now watch this. I'm going to use the VC detector." I must have had a blank look on my face, because he explained. "You know how loud the turret motor is? Well, any gook who's been in combat around tanks knows that sound means the turret is hunting for him. Watch that bunch of military-age males over there."

He had been playing with his override lever as he talked, running the hydraulic fluid down, and now the accumulator motor cut in with its usual mechanical shriek. The effect on the four men was astounding -- they simply vanished.

"Guilty conscience," the TC said. "Out in the paddies we would either bring them in for interrogation, or send 'em a burst for morale purposes."

The tank platoon section had now cleared the built-up area and we were cruising at a comfortable twenty miles per hour through an emerald green, pastoral countryside. Nothing in that setting seemed more unlikely than war, but there was a column of smoke in the distance, northwest of the road, and I could see helicopters heading for it.

Once we left the road, things began to tighten up. Taking my cue from the rest of the crews, I slid down into the gunner's seat and plugged in the intercom. Cut off from visual contact with the rest of the world, except for the limited view afforded by the sights, I had to depend on what I could glean from the radio for information. A tank platoon communication network is like a party line. Each vehicle has unlimited intercom between its four crew members, and each one, simply by reversing his helmet switch, can transmit over the radios.

These crews weren't playing by stateside or European rules -- there was constant chatter among them. It was almost as if the three tanks had been welded together to form one giant machine. In fact, that was exactly what happened when these men learned to fight as a single organism. Each man could be addressed by his name or radio call sign; and the tanks were referred to by name as often as by the more formal military designation. This being 3d Platoon, each call sign was preceded by three and then the number of the individual machine.

In practice, we were not so precise. As we rolled along the rice paddies, there was constant communication.

"Close up, Assassin. Avenger, keep an eye on that grove over to your right; it's big enough to hide an RPG [antitank rocket] team."

"Right, Pappy."

And the two tanks obeyed. The commands...

Review:

The Baltimore Sun Zumbro saw his share of action, which he describes vividly.... -- Review

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Publisher: Random House Value Publishing, 1991
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