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Surveying the Field Nam

Surveying the Field Nam

By Charles J. Jefferson © (1997)

Above Picture: A Marine keeps a battery pack dry as he wades through a muddy hole while on a search mission in Vietnam. Photograph courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.


I was assistant communications officer of a non-divisional heavy artillery group (the 52nd), which was pretty much permanently garrisoned on Artillery Hill in Pleiku. As such, I had the time for, and was frequently assigned, a variety of extra duties.

One time-consuming and paperwork-intensive task was that of survey officer. That is, I would be assigned to investigate the loss of, or serious damage to, government property. In the resulting report of survey, I would determine whether gross negligence had been involved. If so, I would recommend to the Commander that the person or persons involved be held pecuniarily liable, the cost of the lost or damaged property to be deducted from their pay.


This is normally a rare occurrence in a combat or combat support unit during a war. If a unit were rocketed or, better yet - from this viewpoint - overrun, everything the parent organization had lost, mislaid, ruined or traded to another unit since the last enemy attack would have some how magically been present at that precise time and place, allowing it to be wiped off the unit records as a combat loss. Nevertheless, surveys were called for from time to time.


At my previous unit, for example, I had been assigned to do a Report of Survey on an M-16 rifle lost by one of our Forward Observers (FO - someone who accompanies an infantry or other combat unit to call in supporting artillery fire). This was sheer vindictiveness on the part of the Battalion Commander, as the fellow was out with a 173rd Airborne Brigade unit when he lost his weapon, and the incident could easily have been overlooked. But I'd heard rumors that the lieutenant concerned had run afoul of the Battalion staff soon after arriving in country and as a result had been kept on (dangerous) FO duties during his entire assignment rather than for the normal six months.


The very fact that the infantry unit the guy had been with wouldn't certify that his weapon had been lost in combat told me something about him, and left me no choice but to find him grossly negligent and thus, pecuniarily liable.


Later, I was assigned to do the required Report of Survey when the 52nd Group Commander's driver wrecked the CO's jeep. This hot potato involved a kid who was extremely popular around the headquarters but who had wrecked his jeep while, as far as I could tell, drag racing. The diplomatic way in which I handled it convinced the Group XO (Executive Officer) that I was just the man to handle another potentially embarrassing situation when it arose. At the beginning I had no idea just how complicated and ultimately dangerous the investigation would be!


The background was this: Almost two years before, a decision had been made at the Corps (IFFV - First Field Forces Vietnam) level to establish an artillery headquarters at Buon Me Thout in support of operations along the Cambodian border. The 52nd Group's XO and a number of other senior officers and NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) from Pleiku were sent south to establish a Provisional Group.


Later, this organization was made permanent and the people who had gone down to Buon Me Thout were reassigned. They had taken all the equipment (mostly communications gear, generators, etc., valued at about $900,000) with them needed to establish a forward Tactical Operations Center (TOC). The equipment came from the Headquarters and Headquarters Battery of the 52nd Group and thus technically belonged to the HHB's commander, a captain. A hand receipt had allegedly been signed by the senior NCO involved, a sergeant major.


As time passed, everyone involved had rotated. A new HHB commander had assumed command, accepting the hand receipt as evidence that the equipment for which he was signing was accounted for. Then he suddenly developed a serious illness and was medevaced out of country to Japan. His replacement refused to sign for the unit without a sight inventory of all the border. The cleared area was no more than 40 by 100 yards, with two 105mm howitzers and about 20 US troops. Around the perimeter on the downward slope, 80 or so Vietnamese troops were precariously dug in.


The place was overrun the following week: afterwards, B-52s bombed it in an effort to destroy the captured equipment. This event brought to an end the ill-fated notion that artillery could somehow be a combat arm on its own without the grunts. Back in Pleiku, we heard that some of the troops had Eamp;E'd (escaped and evaded) their way through the jungle to safety. (Ten years later I happened to run into one of the officers I had met there, who confirmed this.)


After a little more of this, I gave up and returned to Pleiku. On one hand, my rotation date was nearing and I had no idea how to resolve the situation. On the other hand, no one was asking me about the survey, either.


Finally, I typed up a Report of Survey which concluded, naming each individually, that all of the senior officers and NCO's and the two previous HHB commanders involved had been negligent (but not grossly so) in failing to maintain proper accountability for the equipment.


My bottom line though, was that the equipment was almost certainly still in government service and should be written off the Group's books. As my ride to the airport for the trip to Cam Ranh Bay waited, I placed the signed report in the XO's in-box. Then I left for home.


Viet Nam


Surveying the Field


By Charles J. Jefferson © (1997)


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