COAT OF ARMS
VIETNAM WAR: 1959-1975
"The Vietnam War was a struggle fought from 1959 to 1975. It began as a determined attempt by Communist guerrillas (the so-called Vietcong) in the South, backed by Communist North Vietnam, to overthrow the government of South Vietnam. The struggle widened into a war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam and ultimately into a limited international conflict. The United States and some 40 other countries supported South Vietnam by supplying troops and munitions, and the USSR and the People's Republic of China furnished munitions to North Vietnam and the Vietcong. On both sides, however, the burden of the war fell mainly on the civilians."
"The war intensified in 1960, the year in which North Vietnam proclaimed its intention 'to liberate South Vietnam from the ruling yoke of the U.S. imperialists and their henchmen.' U.S. economic and military assistance to the South Vietnamese government increased significantly and in December 1961 the first U.S. troops, 400 uniformed army personnel, arrived in Saigon." A year later, U.S. military strength in Vietnam stood at 11,200 and by 1969 it peaked at over 541,000. Although 1,766,910 men were drafted during the Vietnam War, not all of them served in Vietnam. "Unlike conventional wars, the war in Vietnam had no defined front lines. Much of it consisted of hit-and-run attacks, with the guerrillas striking at government outposts and retreating into the jungle," followed by search and destroy missions by the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies. To many, it was a war in which the enemy was at times difficult to identify.
"In the United States, as military involvement increased, the war became increasingly controversial." The Vietnam War was the first in which live footage, showing the horrors of war, was broadcast on national television, bringing the war to the masses. "A peace movement developed and gathered momentum, organizing marches and moratoriums against the war. In addition, a major reinterpretation of U.S. involvement in the war was spurred by the controversial publication in 1971 of the so-called Pentagon Papers. This collection of classified U.S. government documents cast a new, and to many, a dismaying light on the U.S. handling of the war and of the peace negotiations through the 1960's."
"On January 27, 1973, in Paris, delegations signed an agreement ending the war and restoring peace in Vietnam. By the end of March 1973, all U.S. fighting forces had been withdrawn. Although President Nixon had apparently assured the South Vietnamese government that U.S. forces would step in to support them in the event of a major treaty violation, further military assistance to South Vietnam became politically impossible. One of the reasons for this was the concurrent outbreak of the Watergate scandal. Fighting between Vietnamese antagonists renewed and on April 30, 1975, the capital of Saigon was captured and South Vietnam surrendered unconditionally to the communist North."
One out of every 10 Americans who served in Vietnam was a casualty. "Less measurable but still significant costs were the social conflicts within the U.S. that were engendered by the war – the questioning of U.S. institutions by the American people and a sense of self-doubt."
Unlike their portrayal by the media and in the movies, the majority of veterans of the Vietnam conflict were much like their counterparts from previous wars. They may not have wanted to go to Vietnam, but they did so out of a feeling of duty for their country. They were the unfortunate victims of an unpopular war, a war in which success was difficult to measure. Generally accepted accounts portray the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as "the war that couldn't be won" and through inference, "the war we lost". Perhaps a good counter point to this view is that American military forces never lost one battle to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or Vietcong (VC) troops. When Vietnam vets returned home to the U.S. there were few ticker tape parades and little thanks for their sacrifice. Vietnam was the most prolonged conflict ever fought by America GI's.
Of those wounded, 75,000 were classified disabled. What follows is the story of one of our cousins who made the supreme sacrifice during this conflict.
All of the sentences in the above summery enclosed in quotes were taken verbatim from Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia. All other sentences were written by the editor of Clan Coulthart based on information obtained from other sources.
Gerald Francis Coulthart (1947-1969)
Gerald was born in Grafton, North Dakota on June 5, 1947. Family and friends called him Frankie. Frankie was the son of Raymond Coulthart and Louise Lambrecht. He was the great-grandson of Walter Coulthart (1820-1892) who had immigrated from Cummertrees, Scotland to North Lunenburg, Ontario with his parents and 13 siblings between 1824-1827. In 1864 Walter moved to Waseca County, Minnesota and by the late 1880's, settled permanently on a farm a few miles north of Grafton.
Frankie was raised on a farm near Hamilton, North Dakota that his father purchased in 1947, the year he was born. He had four sisters and one brother of which he was the youngest: LuRae (1938), Rosalee (1939), Judith (1940), Serene (1944) and Raymond (1946-1973). His sisters remember him as a cheerful person who was always busy taking things apart and putting them back together again. In high school Frankie participated in wrestling. Around the time he graduated from Cavalier High School in 1966, his brother Raymond was drafted and sent to Germany where he served in the U.S. Army. In October 1966 their father passed away.
After graduation Frankie went to Hanson Trade School in Fargo, North Dakota. In April 1968, shortly after completing his studies, he was one of 296,406 men drafted into the Army that year. He was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for basic training after which he was assigned to the field artillery. Most likely Frankie transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the headquarters and training center of the United States Army Field Artillery for AIT (advanced individual training).
On March 14, 1969, Frankie began his overseas tour of duty and left for Vietnam. When he arrived he was sent to the 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh for a few days to await specific unit assignment. Most of the time there was spent simply trying to adjust to the 13-hour time change and the suffocating heat and humidity. By 1969 the base at Long Binh covered 25 square miles and was like a small American city. It contained movie theaters, swimming pools, and restaurants like many bases in the U.S. In one of his first letters home, Frankie wrote, "Where's the war? I don't see any war." This letter was most likely written during his first few days on the base at Long Binh.
Frankie was assigned to the 1st Howitzer Battalion, 30th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) or "Hard Chargers" which reflected their then-current radio call sign. The battalion was equipped with 155mm towed howitzers or "medium artillery" (between 105mm "light artillery" and 175mm and 8-inch "heavy artillery"). "The 30th Artillery had been in Vietnam since late 1965. In 1966 they were the first ever to move 155mm howitzers into combat by helicopter, melding the 1st Cavalry Division's air mobility concept with the unit's heavy firepower. In over five years of combat from 1965-1971, 1st Battalion expended over 1,260,000 rounds of timely, accurate and deadly firepower in support of its infantry brothers and in direct fire defending its remote firebase positions against ground assaults and sapper, rocket, and mortar attacks. These courageous actions cost the lives of 37 known Battalion members and resulted in hundreds of wounded in action. Departing Vietnam in 1971, the Battalion and its batteries had earned two Presidential Unit Citations, four Valorous Unit Awards, three Meritorious Unit Commendations, five Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry with Palm, and innumerable individual medals for valor. It had become the second most decorated of over 70 artillery battalions in the Vietnam War." When Frankie arrived in early 1969, the 30th had just initiated its hardest year of the war. He entered the combat zone during the height of the dry season, when most enemy attacks occurred.
The normal procedure upon arriving in country and being assigned to any unit of the 1st Cav Division was to attend a five-day mini-school to orient new soldiers to the division's airmobile operations. This was essential as the division used helicopters as its exclusive method of moving troops, artillery, and supplies. Frankie likely attended this orientation course at An Khe in the Central Highlands, as the division had only a few months before its headquarters was moved from there to the Tay Ninh region in the south and the training camp facilities had not yet been moved south. Once the course was completed, he would have moved to join the "First of the Thirtieth" at its headquarters at a base camp in Phuoc Vinh, north-northwest of Saigon and undergone further processing for assignment to a specific battery within the battalion. This generally consumed another few days. Since most of the soldiers in Vietnam served a one-year tour of duty, there was a constant need to rotate men in and out of the bases where they served. As men completed their tour of duty and were returned to the States, the new men would be assigned to fill their positions. New men could also be assigned to positions vacated by individuals who were killed or wounded.
During this short stay in Phuoc Vinh, Frankie was assigned to "B" Battery of the 1/30th Artillery. The battalion consisted of five batteries of approximately 100 men each (when at full strength, which was rare in this time frame). Three of these were "firing batteries" (A, B, and C), that is, equipped with the guns. HHB (Headquarters and Headquarters Battery) had no howitzers but contained the command elements of the battalion and coordinated all the firing and movement of the firing batteries. Service Battery was responsible for logistical needs of the firing batteries, supplying them with everything from ammunition and food to providing mechanical assistance in repairing the guns.
The region in which the 1st Calvary operated was a 50-square mile area from 35 to 50 miles north-northwest of Saigon. This sector included several Vietnamese provinces that bordered Cambodia. One such province, Tay Ninh, was contiguous with Cambodia on three sides and one of 10 South Vietnamese provinces that experienced the highest war casualties. The division's three brigades, including all of their "maneuver elements" (primarily airmobile infantry companies), were dispersed throughout the AO (area of operations). Near the small provincial capital town of Tay Ninh, support elements like logistics and the helicopters worked from a giant base ("Tay Ninh West"). The infantry or "grunts" patrolled the mostly jungled terrain east and north of Tay Ninh, from FSBs (fire support bases), sometimes called LZs (landing zones), which also held the 105mm and 155mm howitzer batteries. The infantry's mission was to find the enemy and his supply caches and destroy them, disrupting the NVA's ability to infiltrate further south toward the populated areas of Saigon. The artillery's mission was to support the infantry, shooting fire missions to protect them whenever the infantry came in direct contact with the enemy, as well as to defend the remote LZs and to maintain a moderately secure base from which the infantry could launch their patrols. The 155mm crews became a primary target for the NVA because of the guns' range and ability to penetrate the jungle canopy, two abilities that surpassed the 105mm guns' performance. The former also generally led to each 155mm battery's splitting its gun crews in half (three each) to two different firebases.
View of Black Lady Mountain, the most significant natural landmark in the area, from the Tay Ninh base camp.
Most firebases were located five to twenty-five miles from the big Tay Ninh support base. Additionally, they were generally spaced about six to eight miles from one another, just short of the maximum range of the 155mm howitzers. A typical firebase with 175-225 men (including six 105mm guns and their crews, three 155mm guns with crews, and infantry areas) was initially little larger than a football field or two. As long as the LZ was kept open and occupied, improvements continued, and size was gradually increased as jungle was knocked down. This foliage removal and other defensive measures like stringing barbed wire, sandbagging, and bunker-building, occupied most hours artillery crews were not doing fire missions. Toting the fuzes, food, and 100-lb. 155mm ammo shells (or "projos") from the helicopter landing area to bunkers took up remaining daylight hours. The typical lifespan of a firebase could be anywhere from three days to six months. Frankie was assigned to one of these firebases as were all of the men in the three firing batteries (A, B, and C) of the battalion.
Near the center of each firebase was a bunker that contained the Fire Direction Center. The men in this bunker were responsible for processing requests for artillery support received from the patrolling infantry. The FDC men and officers would use a slide-rule-like calculator to determine the firing data needed to fire the weapons accurately and hit the precise targets the infantry requested. Although computers make these calculations nearly instantaneously today, in the 1960s it was done primarily manually. The FADAC computer, about the size of two or three modern-day PCs, was introduced to combat by 1/30th Artillery. However, the computer's speed was nearly always surpassed by the efficient FDC crews. They could manually calculate and recheck all firing data within one minute of receiving an initial request and could make adjustments within 15 seconds. This information was immediately relayed to the gun crews who aimed the howitzer, loaded the proper ammunition, fuze, and powder, and fired on command. The accuracy and speed with which this entire process, from initial request to artillery rounds on target, was essential in protecting the infantry and inflicting casualties on the enemy. Incorrectly calculated or improperly set firing data was the difference between life and death for the men in the field. Delays in delivering artillery fire subjected the infantry to prolonged enemy attack. Inaccurate fire would not disable the enemy and could potentially harm "friendlies", falling in the wrong area. Frankie served as a Fire Direction Specialist, sometimes known as a "thirteen echo" after his designated MOS (military occupational specialty) and performed in this crucial role.
Under conditions of normal elevation above sea level and weather typical of the area, the 155mm howitzer had a maximum range of 9 miles. It was rated to fire one round per minute, though this was generally surpassed (by a factor of three or four) by excellent crews like those in the 1/30th Artillery. While under the stressed conditions of Vietnam as few as three men could fire 155mm towed cannon, a full gun section was ten. With rotations, men away for R&R, or out of the field with wounds, few crews were ever at this full strength during 1969. "Normal" was six to eight men per gun. Though there was some variance according to the type of round to be fired (HE or high explosive, smoke, illumination, white phosphorus, or fire-cracker) and type of fuze (PD or point detonation, delay, or timer), the general weight of a fuzed round was 95-100 pounds. The performance of the 155mm guns, as mentioned earlier, made them a hated target of the NVA. As a result, the firebases where the 155mm were located were frequently subjected to enemy attack. In Vietnam, the LZ or firebase system put artillery units as much on "the front line" as the infantry. Only a few months before Frankie's arrival, the firebase to which "B" Battery was assigned, LZ Rita, was hit over a two-month period by 671 enemy mortar rounds, 52 107mm rockets, and 7 rounds of 75mm recoilless rifle in an attempt to knock out the 155mm guns.
The events of Monday April 28, 1969 are best told by Spec/4 Michael W. Matthews who served with Frankie."I knew Frankie, he was a nice guy. We were not really friends, he was a new guy and I was an old timer. Frankie's primary task when he first arrived in the 1st and 30th was to transport the incoming ammo and other supplies from the chopper pad to the battery area. Ammo went to the individual gun pits while other supplies (beer, cigarettes, C-rations etc) went to the FDC (Fire Direction Center). Frankie (we always called each other by last names) was transferred to a gun crew just before we arrived at Firebase Carolyn. Carolyn was a resupply point for other smaller LZ's situated too far from Tay Ninh to be resupplied directly. There was a fuel dump for the choppers as well as an ammo dump at Carolyn, very unusual for a forward fire base."
"Carolyn was a nightmare from day one. We were fighting NVA regulars and they wanted us gone. Carolyn had been a Green Beret base camp and had been overrun many times. The main highway from Cambodia to Saigon ran right through the firebase. As we moved in to Carolyn we were taking rocket and mortar fire about every 20 minutes, usually this only happened at night. Not here, it was constant. We were out of range of 155 Arty and received covering fire from 8 inch howitzers and 126 mm guns located at an old french fort at the base of Nuy Ba Dinh mountain. It was a dreary and a scary place. On a clear afternoon as we were offloading ammo (resupply for what was used the night before) we came under rocket attack to the gun pit area. We were dropping the rounds at each gun from a 2 1/2 ton truck when the rockets came in and landed right where the truck had just moved from, at gun 2. Frankie and the gun crew of gun 2 were taking the rounds from the roadway to the pit when two rockets came in. There were about six wounded and Frankie. He took a large piece in the chest and died within a few minutes. As they carried him past me to the aid station on a stretcher he had a funny smile on his face. I do not think he was in pain."
Frankie was 21 years old. Forty-eight percent of all Army deaths in Vietnam occurred during a soldier's first three months in the country. Frankie had been in-country only six weeks. Within days the following letter was sent to his mother by the President of the United States.
May 2, 1969
Dear Mrs. Coulthart:
It is with great sorrow that I have learned of the death of your son, Specialist Four Gerald F. Coulthart.
Of all the hardships of war, the cruelest are the losses of men such as your son. The only consolation I can offer is that the nation he died to serve shares your grief and will forever honor his memory.
I pray for the day when peace can be restored. I wish that your son could have lived to see that day. But when it comes, there will be a special place in the hearts of his countrymen for those whose sacrifice made it possible, and for those others who have borne the burdens of their loss.
Mrs. Nixon joins me in extending our deepest sympathy, and in the hope that the profound respect your son has so tragically earned will help sustain and comfort you.
Richard M. Nixon
Frankie's body, accompanied by a member of 1/30th Artillery, was transported back to North Dakota. The funeral was held the week of May 10, 1969, and he was buried at St. Paul's Lutheran Church near rural St. Thomas, North Dakota next to his father. During the funeral service, one of Frankie's high school teachers read a poem he said was written by a teenaged boy a few years earlier. Evidently it was written as part of a high school assignment and reflected the point of view of many young men at the time. The boy who wrote the poem was Frankie. It was the first time his family had ever heard it.
Eighteen and One-Half
The average age of the combat soldier in many units here is 18 1/2. And what a man he is. A pink-cheeked, tousle-haired, tight-muscled fellow, who under normal circumstances would be considered by society, as half-man, half-boy, not dry behind the ears and a pain in the employment charts.
But here and now, he is the beardless hope of the free man!
He is, for the most part, unmarried and without material possessions except for an old car at home and a transistor radio here.
He listens to rock and roll and the 105 howitzers. He is just out of high school within the last year with so-so grades. He played a little football and had a girl who broke up with him when he went overseas or one that is still faithful although he is half a world away.
He has learned to drink beer because it is cold and because it is the thing to do. He smokes because he gets free cigarettes in his C-rations and it is also the thing to do. He is a private first class, a one year veteran with one more to go.
His eyes are clear but his future is not!
He never cared much for work, preferring waxing his own car to washing his father's. He is 10-20 pounds lighter than before because he is working or fighting from dawn to dark and often longer.
He still has trouble spelling and writing home is a painful process; but he can break down a rifle in 30 seconds and put it back together in 29. He can describe the workings of a fragmentation grenade, explain how a machine gun works, and of course, use either if the occasion arises!
He can dig a foxhole, apply professional first aid to a wounded companion, march until told to stop, stop until told to start. He obeys without hesitation, but he is not broken.
In addition to the unit citations mentioned earlier, Frankie received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart medals. His name is listed on panel 26W, row 69, of the Vietnam War Memorial, "The Wall", in Washington, DC. If you are ever in Washington, please stop by and pay your respects.
Let this story be a reminder to never forget the sacrifice made by brave young men like Frankie who were killed in action in Vietnam. Let's make a special place in our hearts for him and forever honor his memory. To echo one of the mottoes of Frankie's unit, "No one is forgotten, no one is left behind." Rest in eternal peace, Frankie…..you are not forgotten.
Panel 26W from the Vietnam War Memorial, "The Wall" in Washington DC.
Visit the following pages for additional information on Frankie Coulthart's ancestors and relatives:
Page last updated 11/16/2001. © Copyright 1999. Terry Meinke. All rights reserved.
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