DANGEROUS TRAJECTORY

An H&I Round Falls Short
{Webmaster's Note: These perspectives are provided by men of the 2/9th who were there}

Introduction: It was a very effective tactic to fire mortar & artillery rounds randomly into the night on suspected enemy trails, locations of possible enemy staging areas, or simply to deny the enemy free movement over a given terrain.  Infantry units participated with mortar rounds while the Artillery fired howitzer rounds.  This "war story" recounts the evening a mortar round went "short", landing on the LZ OD firebase.  It tells the "story" as best we can recall...and nothing more.

Lt Dennis Munden, 8 March 09:   
I remember certain details of the short round.

I do remember that some of us had had a discussion about the fact that we were not comfortable with them firing the rounds over the battery.  I donít know if I am recalling something you (Dennis Dauphin) told me when we were together or something that I remember from Vietnam, but I do remember that we were going to request that they stop firing over the battery even if they had to move their tube.  I remember we all thought it was a disaster waiting to happen.  

That said, I was sitting in the front seat of the jeep drinking a canteen cup of coffee and talking with (CWO Emil) Franklin and (Capt Keith) Carlton.  For some reason, I went into the FDC to check on something.  I left my coffee sitting on the dash of the jeep.  I was on the way out of the FDC and was between the blast wall and the FDC when someone yelled short round.  I hit the ground and the round exploded as an air burst because it hit on the top rail of a ĺ ton truck that we had to haul ammo from the dump to the guns.  As I recall, the round knocked out all our radios and our generator.  Everything went black.  A bunch of guys started calling out that they were hit.  Besides Carlton and Franklin, there were several guys in the mess tent hit.  I donít remember any others but I am sure there were some.   

I went immediately to Capt Carlton to check him.  (Donít recall who went to Franklin).  He told me that he was hit but that he didnít need any help and that I should go and check on the others.  I moved on to check on the others.  Thank goodness someone with a flashlight went behind me to check on Carlton because he had a major wound to the back inside of his knee and was bleeding profusely.  He didnít even feel the wound and I hadnít bothered to check him further when he told me he would be alright. No doubt he could have bled to death had the wound not been found and a tourniquet not been put on his leg.

I do remember that we had to borrow a radio from the infantry until we got some more radios and we had to get a new generator.

The next morning when I found my coffee cup and it had a neat 3/8Ē square hole in it where a piece of shrapnel hit it near the top.  I kept the cup and used it for the rest of my tour.  When I got ready to come home I packed it in my chest to be sent home.  However, for a second time while I was in Vietnam, some base camp supply type opened my trunk and stole most of what I had packed.  

 

Sp4 Joe Turner:

I was on duty in the FDC bunker just hanging around waiting for the next fire mission, not expecting anything, but I was sitting near the door. And we could hear the 81's firing and the next thing I knew there was an explosion right outside the FDC and I knew the CO was sitting outside on the hood of his jeep. Those of us in the FDC first thought we were under attack from Charlie. However since we didn't hear any more explosions, we came outside and saw that the CO was hit.  Everyone from the FDC was trying to help both officers and trying to get the medic. It was a little strange, because everyone thought we were safe, because of the location and the platoon of infantry guarding our position. We didn't know it was a short round until later that night. I had heard that the powder was wet and that's why the 81 fell short.


When the short round hit, thank GOD for all the sandbags I filled, because I only got tagged with a small piece of shrapnel in my right arm. It's the one souvenir that I still have from my tour, the medic didn't think I needed to have it taken out.  It was weird that while I was in-country,  the two people who were killed or wounded were both by short rounds.

 

Lt Jim Deloney: 
A tidbit about the mortar round landing next to the jeep with CWO Franklin in it.  When he first came in-country, he talked to me about what it was like.  One thing I told him was what an enemy mortar round sounded like in the dead of night, how you'd hear the sound when they dropped it in the tube, then the next thing you'd hear was the explosion when the round exploded.  I told CWO Franklin than after you hear the thud of the launch, hit the ground in a hurry.  Apparently, he remembered this caution and advice.  After the incident {mortar short round}, he came by, I was at the Battalion CP bunker, and thanked me.  Said he was sitting in the jeep as described when he heard the thud of the launch, so he bailed out of the jeep.  Told me a piece of shrapnel went through the seat where he was sitting. 

 I always had respect for CWO Franklin because he was smart enough to ask, to listen, to remember, and then to act when necessary, and man enough to thank someone for helping him stay alive.  A lot of us stayed around to see the next day the same way.  The fellow who thought he knew it all was the one we had to worry about the most, especially if he had just arrived in-country.  I really never had this problem because when I arrived in Vietnam, the 2/9th was the first artillery unit I had ever served in, and this was one year after OCS at Ft. Sill.  The year in between I spent in military intelligence.

Lt Dennis Dauphin: 
At the time, I was the FDO; Lt Dennis Munden and I worked as a team managing the FDC. I remember all the details leading up to the incident.  When you hear an 81mm mortar going through its trajectory, it sounds a lot like modern day bottle rockets that you buy at a fireworks store.   But...hearing a bottle rocket going over your head is one thing; knowing its an 81mm mortar is something else again.

LZ OD was almost a perfect "saddle" on a military map.  We occupied one end of the saddle and the 1/35th Inf Bn Hq occupied the other.  The "palace guard" mortar teams were firing their nightly "H&Is" from the "side" or the military crest of the saddle.  I did not understand why our "palace guard" mortar teams were firing directly over our battery area.  I could see no tactical advantage and placing all the men underneath the trajectory really made no sense.  "Short rounds" are a wartime reality.  I can only assume that they "took orders from headquarters" like everybody else.

I approached the BC about this rather dangerous situation.  Being freshly removed from the field as an FO, I had very little tenure in the battery at this particular time.  Consequently, I guess I didn't have much influence on his decision-making process; Lieutenants tend to have that effect on Captains.  No action was taken.  The rounds continued to criss-cross overhead and I did not like it.  Then one morning, we found an 81mm mortar round that pierced the top sandbag of a cannoneer's bunker sandbag protective wall.  It was sitting there with the front end embedded in the sand of the sandbag and the rest, including the tail fins, protruding out on a diagonal line.  I took a picture of it (and it is the only picture from Nam that I cannot get my hands on and I keep hoping it will turn up one day).  Once again, I approached the BC about these criss-crossing mortar rounds. I told him that we got a "free warning" as evidenced by the mortar round that did not explode, but stuck itself in one of our sandbag walls instead.  Lord only knows how many men could have been killed had it exploded.

Still...no action taken.  The criss-crossing mortars continued.   Our "free warning" coupon had been used.  Then came another short round....this one did explode.

My recall is that the round hit in front of the Jeep.  Franklin was sitting in the driver's seat and Carlton was sitting in the passenger seat.   This would explain that the Jeep took the brunt of the shrapnel, preventing Franklin and Carlton from being killed outright.   But it doesn't explain how Carlton was wounded in the backside of his right knee unless he had his leg propped up on the hood.

Since I had delivered two previous warnings to the BC, since I heard many mortars while out in the field as an FO, and since it was that time of the evening for the criss-crossing H&Is to start once again, I didn't suspect "Charlie".   I knew it was a "short round".

I don't have much recall of the aftermath, other than I concur that Carlton was wounded in the back of the right knee and was shipped out to Japan for treatment.  Franklin got sprayed across the chest with shrapnel and I didn't think he would have survived that.  I heard rumors that Carlton lost the leg below the knee yet other reports indicated they were able to save it.  He did not return.  Franklin, on the other hand, came back out to the field a few months later.  That was amazing to me; I was glad he was up and around so soon after the incident.  He seemed to have taken it all in stride.

 

Additional Comments:   
Lt Dennis Munden:

A few points:  First, we knew it was a short round because only the primer (shotgun shell) went off and we immediately knew it was going to be short.  We FO's had trained our ears to distinguish between friendly mortars and NVA mortars.  The tubes had different sounds.  The 81's and 4 deuces had a different sounds from the 60's and what other mortars the dinks used.   It was a skill I had honed in the LZ Lane region of the Cambodian border.  Second, We had the jeep on the LZ as a backup for our generator.  We had been having generator problems and rather than send us another generator, they sent us the jeep.  The reason Capt Carlton was hit in the back of the leg was when he heard the short round and heard some holler short round he and Emil both jumped out of the jeep.  Carlton must have been face down. Thus, when the round hit the top of rail on the 3/4 ton it was an air burst and the shrapnel covered a wider area.  It was a wonder that Carlton wasn't killed because, as I recall, there was nothing between him and the explosion and he was not very far from it. 

 

Additional Comments:   
Lt Dennis Dauphin:

I  remain adamant that I warned Carlton twice because I was very upset about the stupidity of lobbing mortars over the heads of your own troops with a weapon that used powder packets not much bigger than a postage stamp.    Lt Munden (my very good friend & ally) supports his recollections with the reasons provided and I certainly respect that.  I do remember that we used a 3/4-ton to move ammo around, but I do not have recall of the short round hitting the top rail and not landing in front of the Jeep.  Hitting the top rail would mean that the shrapnel would have sprayed well above ground level and the Jeep may not have provided the protection that I recall.  Yet....Franklin was hit with several pieces across his chest. {I recently learned from someone who knew CWO Franklin that he always wore a flak jacket.  This is correct...and it clearly explains how and why he as not killed outright!!} It would also mean that Franklin could not have bailed out of the Jeep in a "face down" position.  Likewise, if Carlton bailed out in time, the shrapnel would have hit the back of his knee by falling down on him.  As you know, shrapnel does its worst damage by flying horizontally.  We can only put together our "best recall" and I think we have achieved that.  I salute your memory of the Jeep being sent out in lieu of a generator.   I just recall that we had one (obviously) and that Franklin and Carlton made a habit of having an evening coffee sitting in the passenger seats.

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