Accident Investigation in Vietnam

In June of 1968, I was a 24-year-old Second Lieutenant of Marines in Vietnam. I had been serving as an artillery Forward Observer and liaison with an infantry battalion for about ten months. I received orders to become Executive Officer of the artillery battery to which I had been administratively attached. I went on leave for a week.

During the time I was away, an accident occurred in which an artillery projectile apparently fired by my battery, “Charlie Battery,” killed a number of Marines. I was assigned to investigate the incident.

Charlie Battery and the infantry units it supported had recently been moved to a small new base in the flat land between the mountains and the coast in northern South Vietnam. On June 15th, the day of the incident, a Marine company, India Company, consisting of three platoons of 40 men each, was engaged in a sweep across dry rolling fields, to find and fight North Vietnamese Army forces. Late in the afternoon, the company was approaching a line of trees and brush across their front, and they were concerned that it might hide enemy troops hoping to catch them in the open as they crossed the field. They called for artillery, from the battery a mile or more away, to hit the treeline, about 250 yards beyond them. The fact that they were on the line between the guns of the battery and the target added an element of risk, but it was one that often could not be avoided. The Forward Observer began to adjust the battery’s fire to blast the treeline.

The company commander summoned his three platoon commanders and the company’s senior Non-Commissioned Officer to receive their orders for the advance on the treeline. As they huddled together, a projectile, apparently from Charlie Battery, landed and exploded in their midst. It killed all of them.

That was the incident I was assigned to investigate. The aftermath was irrelevant as far as my duty was concerned, but I learned about it in the course of my interviews with the survivors. The company had lost all of its officers and its senior Non-Commissioned Officer. The next senior sergeant took command. The battery was told to cease fire–that a short round had caused Marine casualties. The attack was abandoned. A medical evacuation helicopter was called. It was getting dark. As if the company had not suffered enough, when the senior sergeant stood up to guide the medevac helicopter in, its door gunner thought he was an enemy soldier and killed him with his machinegun.

When all the bodies had been lifted out, the company dug in and returned to the base the following day.

I learned all of this a few days later, when I talked with many of the company. I expected anger and hostility, but I found only grief.

My report included the names and other information about all of the casualties, but I only remember one of them, the company commander, Capt. Henry Kolakowski. He was 29 years old, from Farmington, Minnesota. I think what I remember about him eclipsed my memories of the others because of the particular sadness I felt about his death. He was a good officer. His men loved him. He had been in Vietnam since June of the previous year and would have rotated home in a month. He had been on R&R with his wife a few months earlier and had recently learned she was pregnant with their second child.

Graves Registration provided me with a diagram of his body, showing his wounds. The company’s medical corpsman had tried to save him, but he had died almost immediately.

The men of the battery were horrified by what had happened, but they were not defensive. They were anxious to prove, to themselves as well as to me, that they had not made a mistake and caused the accident. When told to cease fire, they had followed correct procedure for such incidents, leaving everything exactly as it had been when the last rounds had been fired so that the cause of the accident could be determined.

Leveling bubbles and elevations had been verified. As howitzers are fired, their trails, by which they are towed when moving and which hold them in place when firing, tend to dig into the ground, which elevates the barrel. After each shot, the gunner checks leveling bubbles and corrects the elevation of the barrel, if necessary.

The battery had verified that the number of powder bags in the shells had been correct. Artillery shells are made up of two parts, the projectile and the brass powder casing. Before the projectile is set into the neck of the casing, in loading the gun, the gunner pulls a string of bags of powder out of the casing and cuts off and discards a specified number of them, so that the casing contains the correct amount of powder for the range.

It was not difficult to determine where the round would have landed in hypothetical cases. The effect of increased elevation of the barrel, if it had occurred and not been corrected, would have caused the projectile to fly farther, not shorter. Similarly, neither too many bags nor too few would have caused the round to fall where it did; too many and it would have gone long, too few and it would have fallen even shorter.

Might the powder have been contaminated, perhaps exposed to moisture? There was no reason to think so about that particular batch of ammunition. It had been treated no worse than other artillery ammunition, which has been designed for use in bad conditions for a long time.

Might that round have been fired by the enemy, hoping to create confusion and cause the Marines to cease fire? If so, it was incredibly lucky, as well as effective. There was no evidence for it.

My report was inconclusive. I am unhappy even now, that I could not determine what happened. If it were not for the good men who died so needlessly, I could shrug it off as just another mysterious puzzle, but it still comes to mind almost 50 years later.