The following is the second part of Jerry Comello’s story. Details of his first tour in Vietnam ran in the Sept. 9 issue of The Sentinel.
Jerry Comello returned to Vietnam in 1968. In the years since his first tour, he had married his fiancée Miss Karen Fogarty. They had their first son, Joseph, during the next two years as he commanded a basic training company completed the Armored Advance Course at Fort Knox. Upon his return to Vietnam, he was delighted to have the opportunity to return to the 26th Infantry in the 1st Infantry Division.
“It was (May 25), during Counter Offensive Phase IV, when I reported to Lt. Col. Gil Stephenson and took command of Company C, 1st Battalion 26th Infantry. I had met him in 1958 when he was the coach of the plebe team at West Point. Not needing any more slow ends he cut me. He didn’t remember me but I remembered him.
“The 1st Division was very doctrinaire and its area of operations included Phuoc Binh Thanh Special Zone where I had served as an adviser to the ARVN 31st Ranger Battalion in 1964-5. The 26th was in Phuoc Vinh where the Special Zone headquarters had been. So I could hit the ground running. The battalion was assigned to the 1st Brigade and was conducting reconnaissance in force operations.
“We enjoyed many of the same frustrations of the first tour. We had far more and better intelligence, but it came from division and by the time it was integrated into operations, the enemy appeared to be aware. We were operating continuously but having only occasional contacts. On (June 3) the situation changed markedly when the 26th was deployed to the 3rd Brigade area near Di An.”
Comello said there was a perceived threat to the main water plant that served Saigon. The Viet Cong that participated in the Tet Offensive had suffered casualties but were still operational and holed up.
“So now we’re going to find them. And then the way you found them was by stepping on them.”
On June 16 at 9:50 a.m., the A Company commander opted to go through a large overgrown orchard adjacent to a wooded area next to the Vietnamese National Police compound. In that area was what was left of the VC battalion.
“This area was so thick you can hardly see anything, perfect for those who don’t want to be seen,” Comello said. “The assumption was that they had limited supplies since we had been ambushing the river, which, we believed, was their line of communications. They were assumed to have only the ammo that they carried. They could live there and probably sustain themselves off the local community as long as they didn’t cause trouble.
“The VC would not have engaged had we not stepped on them and there would have been no action. Partway through the area, A Company’s 1st Platoon came under heavy fire and suffered severe casualties including their platoon leader who was killed. The company commander was traveling with the 2nd platoon, which also came under fire and was pinned down.”
C Company that afternoon was heading out to ambush the river that night given the amount of traffic seen on the river. Comello’s company instead was told to get to the road and help Alpha Company.
“When we arrived it was chaotic. The vegetation in the overgrown orchard is so thick you can’t see anything of A Company or the enemy.”
C Company arrived at the fight at 4:03 p.m., with a lieutenant colonel overhead in a helicopter directing gunships and giving directions.
“I was traveling with the lead platoon whose platoon leader was putting his best machine gunner in position to establish a base of fire,” Comello recalled. “As he’s firing, the first burst the gunner is shot and the platoon leader is wounded. The rest of First platoon comes up on line, second is going to be on the left, and we start returning fire, but I don’t have everybody up yet. Right behind us comes B Company Commander with a platoon. He jumps in the hole saying ‘Six (the battalion commander) says we’ve got to go in right here!’
“But my First Sergeant is trying the get the machine gun in operation again so that we have a base of fire at least at this point, while others are evacuating the gunner and platoon leader. I tell Bravo company commander ‘Wait till we get the gun up, and he says ‘No, Six says we’ve got to go in now,’ jumps out of the hole, gets less than 20 yards forward and is shot. It’s so thick we can’t see if he’s dead or wounded. When the gun joins the fire a sergeant crawls forward and drags the B Company Commander back to be evacuated with the other WIA.
“So here we are: Bravo company commander’s out, Alpha company commander is really beyond it at this point, not giving coherent information or directions. By 1800 we win the firefight, but they withdraw.”
Comello said they worked on recovering the wounded and evacuating them, taking what’s left of the three companies south to establish a night defensive position on a high point. Unbeknownst to him and the others, the Viet Cong were also heading south.
“In retrospect, as far as I can tell, they wanted to get to the river. So every time we get anywhere where it’s clear enough to see, the point exchanges fire with them. That happens at least twice. Eventually, they got around us because we reached the designated NDP.”
It wouldn’t be until June 17 that Comello would see the same Viet Cong battalion again.
“We stepped on what was left of them again in an area between the NDP and the river. By the time the mission was over, the 26th had taken heavy casualties. At the end of that day, we were down – with the exception of the mortal platoon that was in the base, to 53 guys a platoon leader and me.”
Pulled out of the line, Comello and his men were sent to a base camp to build an NDP while receiving replacements. There he had an experience that runs contrary to what many people believe about Vietnam.
“You’ve seen ‘Platoon’ and other sources claiming our troops were all smoking pot or taking dope, etc. We’re building an extensive NDP near Song Be, and using local people to fill sandbags and haul building materials. My sergeants would come up to me and report when they or their soldiers were approached with offers by the locals to provide pot or drugs, and we would eliminate those making such offers from the workforce. This is 1968, and my guys weren’t smoking that stuff—they were turning that junk in.”
Later on in his tour, Comello and his men were called out on a joint operation with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR). The Cavalry had armored personnel carriers, which, as he was about to learn, involved some tactics he did not expect.
“The 26th was assigned to assess a B-52 strike in Phuoc Binh province and was given operational control of A Troop of the 11th ACR. It was our first interaction with the 11th ACR. We set up an NDP with the tracks, M113’s incorporated inside the perimeter, and put out observation and listening posts (LP/OPs) outside the perimeter. After dark the observation posts become listening posts. No one in the battalion at that time knew how the Cav conducted a perimeter defense at night. They don’t have enough troopers to dismount and form a perimeter around their tracks, so they begin randomly firing from the tracks with machine guns at EENT. Needless to say, that was a shock to the LPs especially. That introduced us to the Cavalry’s curious standard operating procedures. We told them that ‘When you’re under our operational control, don’t do that.’ As it turned out there was nothing in the strike area and we were withdrawn.
Comello recalled a very close call on another operation in the bush.
“While under the operational control of the 11th ACR, on one operation, our reconnaissance route had been extended so we were out of water and called for resupply. We received an air drop of ‘water sleeves.’ We had not seen or used them before. We picked them up, but you can’t share them while we’re moving, so we put them over our shoulders and continued on the route. As we moved over a hill, my forward observer saw an L19 spotter aircraft fly over. He decided to contact him and in the process heard the L19’s pilot giving a call for fire on VC in the open wearing red scarves at our location. ‘That guy’s calling for fire on us!’ Just by the grace of God, the FO decided to contact that aircraft and prevent a tragedy.”
Comello eventually transferred out of the bush and was assigned to lead the 1st Division’s Mobile Training Team, consolidate its five brigade-level training schools and command the 1st Division Training Command (Provisional).
He returned to the states in June 1969. He stayed in the Army for 30 years, joining the U.S. Army War College faculty in 1988 where he began studies for a doctorate in military history, retiring from the Army in 1992 as a full colonel. Following his Army service, he taught at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College from 1992-1995 and the U.S. Army War College from 1995-2010.