Friendly Fire - Vietnam

By Scott Parrino 31 Aug 2003 0

Introduction

The phrase ?Friendly Fire? at first glance sounds comforting. In reality, however, its import has come to mean something far more deadly. In military terms, ?friendly fire? refers to military personnel mistakenly being fired upon by their own side. In other words, friendly fire takes place when men take fire from their own units.

The tragedies of the Gulf War brought the impact of this type of accident graphically home to people around the world. The Coalition forces had a minimum of losses, yet nearly one in ten of those were caused by friendly fire.

Losses such as these are nothing new. They have occurred ever since men have gone to war. This type of tragic casualty has increased as the methods and weapons of war have become more powerful, long-ranged and impersonal. It was said of modern weaponry that, ?If you can see it, you can kill it.? But now you don?t even have to see your target, at least not with the naked eye. Laser sights, radar, computer-guided missiles and other modern aids to pinpointing an enemy and destroying him are becoming more and more sophisticated.

Yet a 7.62mm rifle round or a smart bomb only aims for a target. It cannot distinguish between friend or foe. These missiles of death go where they are told. True, there are occasional weapons malfunctions, but by and large such tragic mishaps occur due to human error.

It might be inaccurate coordinates fed into a computer, a poor setting of ranges by the firing unit or a missed call on a sighting. Whatever the human reason, its consequences are usually disastrous. In World War II, the first efforts in carpet-bombing by hundreds of planes more than once dropped errant 500 pounders on friendly troops. It happened at St. Lo when dozens of men of the 30th Division were killed, or again near Falaise when bombs struck the advancing II Polish Armored Division.

This type of error was graphically portrayed in the movie ?Platoon? when friendly artillery rounds began falling among the men who needed its support. The young Lieutenant, shaken and fearful, read out the wrong coordinates and the falling fire ripped into the men of his own unit. Another instance of the same type of accident was featured in the movie ?Hamburger Hill.? This time, attack helicopters bore in on the enemy at the top of the hill but misjudged the U.S. lines and killed a number of GIs who were in some of the lower enemy trenches.

Case in Point

Friendly fire also occurred in Vietnam?and all too often. On April 16, 1966, in the Phouc Tuy Province of South Vietnam, Charlie Company of the 16th Regiment, 1st infantry Division was on a recon mission through the hills in the area looking for the elusive enemy. As the neared the coast, artillery rounds called in by a sister company were misdirected and land in the middle of the boys of Company C. Frantically going to the radio to call off the fire, they moved quickly ahead to get out of the range of the 105mm shells. Reaching the top of the next hill, they found that they had inadvertently ended up adjacent to an enemy base camp.

The camp appeared deserted. After calling in a helicopter for the evacuation of those wounded by the friendly rounds, Captain Walter McIntyre, the company commander, sent out a couple of squads to reconnoiter the area. Just as a Medivac with an armed Huey escort approached them, the 2nd Squad 1st Platoon stumbled upon a hidden enemy bunker.

Suddenly, an enemy attack erupted at point blank range. When the enemy guns began their death chatter, men of the 2nd Squad spun crazily and fell, or simply slumped suddenly to the ground without a sound. The initial enemy fire was devastating and nearly annihilated the squad. The enemy fire was apparently a pre-arranged signal. From the woods around the company automatic weapons and machine guns opened up on the entire company. The captain, trying to form a defense perimeter began moving among his men and shouting orders. As he did so, he was hit in the right shoulder. The bullet shattered his collarbone and dropped him like a rock.

He was back up as quickly as he had gone down, but now with his arm hanging lifelessly at his side. Though bleeding profusely and in great pain, he continued to rally his men and began laying down consistent defensive fire. Then turning to his RTO, he called for help from the nearby Delta Company on his right flank.

The unarmed Medivac quickly pulled up an out of the LZ area, being peppered by machine gun fire as it did so. The Huey gunship bore in on the enemy?s line of fire and shredded part of the attackers with 7.62 machine gun fire. Hit repeatedly as it passed over the enemy, the attack chopper was also forced to withdraw.

By now, the situation became more serious when Viet Cong mortars opened up on the Americans? position. On standby for the ground mission was a flight of attack jets. Receiving the frantic call of the Captain, the commanding pilot requested smoke markers. The men of Charlie Company, already victims of friendly fire, tensely watched the jets as they bore in right above them.

This time their fears were groundless. Coming in low and fast, the F105s hit the VC with napalm and high explosive bombs. So devastating was the air assault that the attackers were put into total disarray. By this time Delta Company was approaching and taking the enemy under fire in a strong flanking maneuver. Seeing that their moment of glory was at an end, the VC again became ghosts and disappeared into the heavy terrain.

Charlie Company had held, but at a cost. The bitterest pill to swallow for the men, however, was the pounding received by deadly misguided friendly artillery rounds that had caused nearly a dozen casualties. The war in the Nam was becoming harsher with each passing day.

Sources

The Rise and Fall of an American Army by Shelby Stanton

Nam: The Vietnam Experience 1965-75 by Tim Page (Editor), John Pimlott (Editor)

Crusade : The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War by Rick Atkinson

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