I was the senior advisor to the VN 102nd Artillery Battalion located in B Battery's old base camp on Hill 34 in Da Nang. It was the second of what eventually were five 175mm gun battalions the Viets fielded. I replaced Carl Lanier although we did not have any overlap. It wasn't until an 8/4 reunion that we discovered we had the same job on our second tour. It was great duty. I had a five man team of advisors and we lived in the MACV hotel in downtown Da Nang. Civilian clothes were authorized and I was armed with an advisor pass which allowed us to be in any Vietnamese establishment and ignore the curfew. A lot of freedom! I had a private jeep and a Vietnamese driver. Life was good.
The senior advisor to the quad .50 and Duster battalion being organized by the Vietnamese was Captain Jim Cook. He had been the Army's G Battery 29 Artillery, a searchlight battery attached to 1st Marine Division Artillery in 1968 when I was our B Battery's commander. We were good friends then and I was pleasantly surprised to find that he and I were room mates and members of MACV Team 1 in Da Nang. So many coincidences and a relaxed work situation should have tipped me off that things could only get worse.
The 102nd was in training before being deployed but the North Vietnamese attack cancelled all plans. I was ordered to help the battalion get ready to move north. In a day or so, I was told to turn over the advisor team to my deputy, CPT John Jollisaint and proceed to Quang Tri. The ARVN 3rd Division Artillery advisor, a major named Bunny, had been wounded and I was to take his place. Somehow I worked my way to the Citadel in Quang Tri. When I arrived, I reported to the division's senior advisor and head of MACV Team 155. I was shocked when I entered his office in the Citadel. Although I told him who I was and why I was there, he never acknowledged my presence. He kept starring a big map pinned to the wall. There were no markings on the map. After a long time during which he never even turned to look at me, I went to find the Division Artillery's bunker. Another shock awaited me there.
The Division Fire Control Center was paralyzed. Only a handful of junior officers under an older captain named Vien manned the Center and they were unsure of what to do. Although the days all run together in my memories, I spent most of the time trying to get the division artillery to fire back at the North Vietnamese. They were very reluctant to have any of their units shoot because as they explained to me that would only upset the North Vietnamese who would increase their fire. They seemed willing to just let the artillery units in the field fire in support of their units if asked. No attempt was made for a coordinated counterbattery program. It was very frustrating but finally I was able to convince the captain that our only recourse was to have our units fire. He was not a coward but because he had previously been enlisted and was much older, he was very reluctant to take any action without the approval of his seniors. However, none of the division artillery staff ever visited the FDC bunker, and I could not even found out where they were located.
As the situation worsened and fire base after fire base fell, I made many visits to the 3rd Division's Operations bunker. Again I found paralysis among the South Vietnamese. The American advisors worked furiously to coordinate air and naval gunfire. They had completely written off the ARVN artillery and had little time for me. I kept hearing that a US Marine advisor to the Vietnamese Marines named Turley was in charge. An Army artillery officer who was the senior advisor to the Vietnamese 10th Artillery Battalion told me that division wide orders were originating from Ai Tu. I found it hard to fathom that the entire 3rd Division staff had abdicated their command role but the more I learned the more it became clear that LTC Turley was the only person taking any action. He was in a bunker at Ai Tu just north of Quang Tri. I thought that I could coordinate fires with his advisors so I got a ride to his location. At first I was refused entry by the South Vietnamese guards. They refused to even go into the bunker to get an American so I could talk to them. Things got a little tense and I was about to go back to the Citadel. Finally, I got inside but was told that it was only the Vietnamese Marine Brigade Command Post. Frustrated and mad as hell, I returned to the Citadel.
Days and nights blended together and I lost track of time. Some of my memories are hazy and do not agree with other published reports. Others are crystal clear as if they happened yesterday. Some things in addition to my never ending push to get the South Vietnamese to fire back stand out in my mind. The only humorous thing was the fried chicken head story. One evening, the Vietnamese officers from the FDC asked me to come with them to a private house in Quang Tri for a 'home cooked' meal. There were four of us and we sat in an old red plastic restaurant booth. It's strange that I remember the color after all these years. After endless cups of tea and a tasty soup, the main course was served. A plate of fried chicken was piled in a pyramid with the head with attached neck was on top. The Vietnamese officers offered me the plate. I guess they considered me the honored guest. I glanced at the chicken head and would have sworn it was looking back at me. Now, it's important to know that all my life the only part of chicken I like is the breast. I continued to make conversation as I fingered my chop sticks wondering how I was going to somehow take a piece of chicken while avoiding the head and neck. There weren't any other utensils on the table so it was the chop sticks or nothing. Finally, I decided to risk a try. In a very skillful maneuver, I slickly extracted a chicken breast from below the head and neck. To cap the achievement, I didn't even disturb the pile. The chicken's eye still glared out at me. My trick was greeted with audible sighs from around the table. The sighs were mostly of relief that I hadn't embarrassed myself but I was convinced the Vietnamese officer next to me sighed because he was happy that he would now get the head and neck. As I sat there I knew that no matter what happened I'd get out of Quang Tri.
Another vivid memory is standing late one afternoon next to the US Air Force FAC's jeep with an American artillery battalion advisor named Yablonski. He was the Army officer who first told me of divison orders coming from Ai Tu. Years later I discovered he had been in 8/4 and when the battalion went home he was reassigned as an advisor. We were listening to the FAC coordinate air strike when the Guard channel came alive with calls of "SAM" "SAM". We were all shocked that the North Vietnamese had deployed SAMs so close to the DMZ. Suddenly in the midst of all the "SAM" calls, a voice on the Guard channel screamed "bandit, bandit'. At that moment a MIG flashed low over our heads. We couldn't believe our eyes. A MIG on our side of the DMZ and right over the Citadel! If he had guns we would have been dead. The next day Captain Yablonski showed me a drawing he made from memory of the plane. No doubt, it was a MIG. Some day I'll meet Yablonski again and we can confirm our sighting.
Things continued to get bad. The South Vietnamese were abandoning their positions and many were quietly getting rid of their weapons and slipping away down Route 1. The North Vietnamese surrounded Camp JJ Carroll and the South Vietnamese there quickly surrendered without a real fight. The American advisors were lucky and were taken out by a Chinook helicopter that happened to be in the area. LTC Camper, the senior advisor later told me that he and his deputy had a selection process to decide which South Vietnamese soldiers got on the helicopter. He said that if they had weapons they got on. If not, they were thrown off. Some from as much as thirty or so feet in the air as the helicopter took off.
As the North Vietnamese pushed south, LTC Truly disobeyed orders and directed that the bridge at Dong Ha be destroyed. In a magnificent act of bravery, Marine Captain Ripley assisted by Army Major Smock risked his life by setting demolition charges under fire. The bridge came down but North Vietnamese infantry crossed the river and pushed down Route 1. Ai Tu had to be abandoned. My efforts to get the South Vietnamese artillery to fire back became meaningless as all their artillery units were either captured or were fleeing south towards Hue.
The North Vietnamese worked to surround the Citadel. One morning I found the FDC bunker empty. The division artillery staff had just melted away. I went back outside and saw almost no one. The few South Vietnamese I saw were just sitting around with a vacant look on their faces.
Finally, that afternoon I found Lieutenant Joel Eisenstein, the Marine naval gunfire liaison officer. I asked him what he planned to do. He said that just at first light the next day he was going through the Citadel wall at a spot closest to the coast and then walk down the river in hopes of making the beach where he could be picked up by the Navy. He said I could come because he had seen that I was trying to do my job and had not panicked. He made me promise not to tell any other American. He was extremely upset with Team 155 for a previous incident which had cost the lives of two of his team members. I promised knowing that as far as I could tell he and I might be the only Americans still in the Citadel.
I spent an anxious night in the FDC bunker wondering why the North Vietnamese didn't rush the Citadel. During the night, I got a call from LTC Guffey my boss in the artillery section of Team 1 in Hue. He cryptically told me to "hang around 3 Star in the morning". I knew he meant the small VIP helipad inside the Citadel. I tried to find Lieutenant Eisenstein to tell him but somehow never saw him again. As first light dawned I lay in a ditch near the pad as a light observation helicopter piloted by a very young looking junior warrant officer landed as if he hadn't a care in the world. I scrambled out of the ditch and dove into the helicopter. The pilot was looking around like a farm boy in the big city for the first time. I beat on him with my helmet and screamed at him to pull pitch. He started to tell me that I had to put on my seat belt and roll down my sleeves. Another hit with my helmet convinced him to take off. Late that same morning the 3rd Division Commander and some of his senior staff officers commandeered two APCs and tried to break out of the Citadel. Their attempt to flee down Route 1 had been stopped by the North Vietnamese.
The young helicopter pilot took me to Hue where I meet LTC Guffey. He had a jeep so we drove north from Hue with the goal of stopping any South Vietnamese artillery units we found going south. It was fruitless. I wondered what happened to Lieutenant Eisenstein.
Brian M. O'Neill
B Battery CO
NOTE: Brian O'Neill was the CO of B Battery of the 8th Battalion 4th Artillery in 1968-1969. Years later in 2004, Brian mentioned Lt. Eistnstein to Charles White. With only a last name to work with, in five minutes he was able to find Joel B. Eisenstein, an attorney in St. Charles, Missouri. We are told that he and Brian had a long talk afterward. In 2006 Mr. Eisenstein was a major character on Ollie North’s "War Stories" in a feature about the 1972 Easter offensive.