Basic School Class 2-65 New Orleans 2019 Reunion

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Phil Harris' Story

Although I was in Vietnam only a short time, due to the stateside death of my father, I did have some experiences that will stay with me forever.  One of those occurred in Happy Valley on June 26, 1965.  If you go to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, you will find five Marine’s names on Panel E, Row 20.  These are 1st Lt Bob Butz, Sgt Fred Eustace, Cpl George Zupancic, Cpl Fred Schwanger, and Cpl Joseph Grugan.  Four of these Marines were members of Alpha Co, 3rd Tank Bn, and one (Cpl Grugan) was an engineer assigned to us.  These five Marines died because of a tragic accident.  Bob Butz was our company XO, and slept right next to me in the tent.  He was really a great guy, and had a wife and three sons back in Allentown, PA.  He had been a teacher and a coach, and gave up that profession to become a Marine Officer.

We had one gun platoon and the flame tank platoon supporting 2nd Bn, 3rd Marines (I think I’m right on this) on a search and destroy mission.  Any body that knows any thing about Vietnam knows that is was not tracked vehicle friendly.  When we moved through an area, we used the riverbeds a lot of the time, because they were fairly solid and stable.  Bob Butz had the blade tank at the front of the column.  Along with the four regular crewmen, he had an armorer, a medical person, and an engineer on the back of the tank.  My tank was about two thirds of the way toward the back of the column.  We were traveling down a shallow riverbed.  When they began to get in deep water, Bob told the driver to steer left.  Some how, the driver steered right, and the tank went into a hole.  The tank filled with water.  At this point, things get confused.  Some say Bob got to shore and went back for Sgt. Eustace.  I was a long distance away and did not observe what was happening.  We hurriedly moved up to that area, and it was eerie.  The antennas were barely showing above the water, and there was gear floating in the water.  Amazingly, the driver was one of the survivors, and he had the longest distance to come to get out of the tank.  We called recon to come out with their scuba gear to find the bodies, and we pulled our buddies out of the river.  It took about five hours to retrieve all of the bodies.  Captain Donavon told me to pick one of my men and walk up the riverbed to meet the tank retriever that we had called to haul the tank out of the river.  I chose Sgt Dwight Rogers and we started up the riverbed.  Sgt Rogers was walking on my five.  We were carrying M3A1 Sub Machine Guns that were our TO weapons.  We had been walking about ten minutes, when I heard two close shots and the sand kicked up in front of me.  I hit the sand and burrowed in.  Very scared.  I turned and looked back at Sgt Rogers.  He was standing there looking at his weapon.  He said, “Sorry about that Lieutenant”.  I got up, told him to forget it, shook as much sand off as I could, and we kept walking.  After about thirty minutes, we heard and saw the retriever with the men from our maintenance section.  We jumped on the tank retriever and directed them to the point where the tank had sunk in the river.  The retriever hooked up and pulled the water filled tank out of the water.  It was getting dark by then so we circled a hill, set up security and spent the night out there.  The next morning we came back in.

My company commander was Captain John Donavan.  He was a really good company CO, and also a good friend of Bob Butz.  I could tell by looking at him that this was eating at him but he never lost his composure.  I don’t think I could have had a better first time company CO.  Frank Cox mentioned this in his book, “Lullabies For Lieutenants”.

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