Friendly Fire

by Jerry Prater

LATE MAY, 1967 — Every infantryman who served in Vietnam, as well as every other war, expects to receive fire from enemy soldiers. The biggest difference between Vietnam and every other war American soldiers have fought is the identification of the enemy. In previous wars, the enemy could be identified by the uniform they wore, or because they lived or operated behind enemy lines. In most cases, the enemy in Vietnam could not be identified until they shot at the GIs. Since there were no enemy lines in Vietnam, the Vietnamese people you saw at their home or in a village, or those you passed on a trail or road, could very well be a Viet Cong or NVA soldier. Even the 9 or 10 year old kid who wanted to sell you a Coca-Cola could also have a concealed hand grenade that they would throw at GIs when they weren’t paying attention. Also, the Vietnamese people who were hired to work on LZs and forward fire bases during the day could be the people who tried to kill you that evening.

Receiving fire from enemy soldiers is one thing, but receiving fire from other GIs or South Vietnamese soldiers, friendly fire, is a totally different story. You can return fire when the enemy fires at you, but you really don’t want to fire back at your comrades. After all, if you do return fire, you could find yourself being the target of a barrage of mortar or artillery fire. So, you just have to take cover until you can get their attention and convince them to stop shooting at you.

   

Top. The M-79 Grenade Launcher.

Bottom. the 40 mm round for the M-79. 

        Don "Truck" Schmidt in May, 1967, when he was first starting out as a grenadier.
   
 

I can distinctly recall five separate instances where I was the target of inadvertent and unintentional friendly fire. One of the instances occurred as the platoon was on one of our many search and destroy missions. As we were walking through an area that had very little foliage, all of a sudden I heard a thud sound from behind me, and immediately afterward a M-79 projectile hit the ground about three feet to the right of me and ricocheted away. The M-79 is a grenade launcher that looks similar to a sawed off shotgun with a very large barrel and fires a 40mm grenade. One of the safety issues of the M-79 is that the projectile must travel approximately 25 meters before it is activated and the grenade will explode. I turned around and saw Don Schmidt, who was about 15 meters behind me, looking at me with a terrified look on his face because he had inadvertently fired his M-79. After I realized what had happened, and had a few moments to re-gather my senses, I told Don that he needed to remember what we had learned together at infantry training in Tiger Land. I reminded him that the breach was to remain open until he was ready to fire the weapon. If the breach is closed, the M-79 can easily be fired accidently, which could result in the death or maiming of one or more of your buddies because the grenade would kill anyone within about 7 meters of the detonation location.

Within two weeks of this incident, I had my second friendly fire encounter. We were on another search and destroy mission and we had just stopped to take a break. The weather was very hot and very humid, as usual, and all the guys in the platoon needed to take a break so we continue with our mission for the day. We were told to “saddle up,” so all of us had to put our packs back on our back and stand up. The packs weighed up to 70 pounds, so picking them up and putting them on our backs was no easy task. My back pack was so heavy that, at times, I didn’t have the strength to lift it off the ground and get it on my back. Instead, I would lay backwards on top of my pack, buckle it to my body, turn over from my back to my stomach, and then try to stand up. Just after I got to my feet I heard another thud sound from behind me, and immediately afterwards another M-79 projectile hit within five feet of me and ricocheted away. I looked around and, sure enough, Don Schmidt was looking at me again with the shocked look on his face. He was about 15 or 20 meters from me, so the projectile didn’t rotate enough times to arm the firing mechanism in the grenade. I reminded Don again of the safety procedures we were trained to follow, and for him to leave the breach open because the next time the grenade may travel the necessary 25 meters and someone may get killed or injured. I was not as kind this time, and he must have gotten the message because he didn’t have another accidental firing that I can recall.

 

At the end of the day when the platoon was on another search and destroy mission, we set up on top of a very tall hill. The area did not have much foliage, so we had a very good field of fire, and we had a good view of anybody who may try to approach our position. We dug a small hole, set out our claymore mine and trip flares, and set up our guard rotation for the evening. When I went to pick up the flares and claymore the next morning, I noticed that the mine was pointed towards us instead of away from our position. I asked the guys around me if they had turned the claymore around, and all of them said they didn’t go near it. I reported this information to Sgt. Larry Douglas, my squad leader.

Approximately an hour after I reported the incident to my squad leader, I was advised that I would be a part of a patrol that would search for evidence of any activity within the area. About five or six of us left the area and went down the hill while the rest of the platoon stayed at location where we had set up the previous evening. After we had been on patrol for about four hours, we obtained permission to return to the platoon because we could not locate any signs of any enemy activity. As we were humping back up the hill, we came to a shallow stream of water, and then we saw a small waterfall that had a shallow pond that fed off the stream. Since we were very hot, tired and sweaty, and because we were about 250 meters below our platoon’s position, we decided to take a bath in the cool, clear pond. We undressed and got into the water, and it felt great to be able to cool down and just enjoy laying in the water.

    The rock formation above the stream and pool where we were cooling off         The Vietnamese Police the day of the friendly fire incident

Then, all of a sudden, we began receiving heavy incoming fire. We could hear the cracking of rounds passing by our heads, and the sound of the rounds ricocheting off the rocks, but we couldn’t determine where the rounds were coming from. Joe Archuleta got on the radio to the platoon to let them know of our situation. Then, it was determined that someone in the platoon saw us in the water and thought we were VC trying to sneak up to the position, so they started firing at us. The incident lasted less than five minutes, but it seemed much longer because we were stark naked at the time, and we were pinned down by heavy fire from our own platoon.

On many occasions, after the platoon would set up for the evening, we would be instructed to fire H&I, harassment and interdiction. Once each hour, the person on guard would throw a grenade, fire an M-79, or fire their rifle or machine gun into the area in front of them. This was done to discourage VC from trying to sneak up on the platoon during the cover of night. One other tactic that was used on many occasions was to send an ambush patrol, which consisted of a three man machine gun crew and two other members of the platoon. The purpose of the patrol is to kill anyone who comes within the effective killing range of the patrol. At other times an OP, which is an observation or listening post, would be sent out about 50-75 meters from the perimeter with a radio to report any activity that can be seen or heard. The OP would typically consist of three people so they could alternate times of one person being on watch while the other two were asleep.

I was selected to be on an OP one evening and, after dark, the three of us made our way to the location selected for us to set up. I was scheduled to pull the first watch and, after about 45 minutes, I began receiving heavy gunfire from the direction of the platoon. The rounds were close because I could hear the cracking sound as the rounds went past my head. I got on the radio and frantically asked that they stop firing at us. The firing ceased, and I went to sleep after my guard shift ended. However, I was woken because we were, once again, receiving heavy fire from the direction of the platoon. Apparently, the guy who fired at us initially forgot to tell the guy who relieved him not to fire in our direction. However, word must have finally gotten to all the guys pulling guard at that particular position because we didn’t receive any friendly fire for the rest of the evening.

    The Vietnamese Police the day of the friendly fire incident         The Vietnamese Police leaving the village with Sgt. Larry Douglas looking on

For a period of time, our platoon was assigned cordon and search missions. We would conduct our search and destroy missions during the day, and set up our perimeter at the end of the day. However, instead of staying at that location all night, we would “saddle up” at about 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning and move to a previously selected village. We would surround the village to keep anybody from leaving until the South Vietnamese Police arrived by a chinook just after daybreak and searched the village for VC or NVA soldiers.

Sgt. Larry Douglas and Ed House

During one of these missions, Edward House, Sgt. Larry Douglas and I were sitting on top of a dike in a dry rice patty on the edge of the village. The South Vietnamese Police were going through the village, and several VC were apparently in the village because there were frequent bursts of gunfire. I didn’t think much about that until I heard the unmistakable sound of a burst of rounds popping and cracking close to my head. I thought to myself that that was a close call, but it was now over. Then, I once again heard the sound of another burst of rounds popping right next to my head. I ducked behind the dike and stayed there until the South Vietnamese Police stopped firing and started coming towards us so they could get back on the chinook and head back to their station.

Soldiers are killed by friendly fire in every war, most by mistake and some were fragged, or killed intentionally. I was very fortunate to survive these five accidental incidences of friendly fire because all of them could have been fatal. There could also have been other times when I was the target of unintentional friendly fire I am unaware of because the rounds didn’t come close enough for me to hear the popping and cracking sound.