Tanks for the Memories
By: Jim Coan
It’s been discomforting to admit it, but the passage of time has dulled some memories of my tour in Vietnam as the platoon leader of 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 3rd Tanks, 1967-68. Of course, I can recall many of the close calls, the fear I felt during incoming, as well as the times I was ready to spit nails when dealing with ignorant grunt officers who neither understood nor appreciated the tankers attached to them. But what I hang on to the most, and pray they never fade, are my memories of some of the most gregarious, extroverted, one-of-a-kind characters that I had the honor and pleasure to share a cup of C-ration coffee with.
Sgt. Howard always comes to mind first. He had served a hitch in the Marines during the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, then left the Corps to become a construction worker. He decided to rejoin the Marines when the war in Nam was heating up. By 1967, he had worked his way up to sergeant. That Marine loved every day he spent in the Corps. When we were getting mortared, or rockets were hitting our compound at Con Thien, we could always count on Howard to say something to break the tension and get us laughing in the grim reaper’s face. He was the platoon scrounger. Clean cots and new blankets would show up in our bunkers overnight. I asked no questions because I didn’t want to hear any lies.
Howard’s tank and mine were marooned for a few days at C-2 when a monsoon deluge washed out the MSR between Con Thien and C-2 in September, 1967. One afternoon, Howard and another tanker walked in carrying a crate of apples and some large cans of dehydrated potatoes. Their story was that they had convinced a sympathetic cook that we had nothing to eat and were starving. I suspected that they had filched the food from the mess hall tent when the cook was distracted. Again, I asked no questions.
We had rigged up a tent-like tarp between our two tanks to keep us out of the rain. One day, a dozer tank from the Cam Lo Bridge joined us. The TC was L/Cpl “Charlie” Brown. His tank had been marooned when the bridge flooded, so he was looking for some shelter until the rain subsided. Unbeknownst to me and my little band of orphaned tankers, Brown was a legend in the Marine Corps, having been busted and promoted more times that anyone knew. He was the type of combat Marine you wanted watching your back in a fight, but not someone to go bar hopping with on liberty. When he asked innocently if anyone had a deck of cards, we stacked a few cases of C-rations to make a table and played “tonk”, then we rolled some dice. By the time “Charlie” Brown and his crew left, none of my tankers had any piasters left. We were all cleaned out, having been taken to school by the best in the business.
My first platoon sergeant was Gunny Hopkins, a Korean War vet from West Virginia who only had a few years to go until retirement. He greeted everyone as “old cob.” His dream job upon retirement was to drive a beer truck. He had forgotten more about tanks than I knew, so I depended on his input and experience. Despite his countrified tendencies and me being a city boy from Tucson, we hit it off right away. We shared a Dyemarker bunker at C-2 for a month, and I enjoyed it when he would serenade us with a country song—“Yo-ure cheatin’ heart . . . .” He scrounged up ice from somewhere so we always had cold beer, which was a blessing after 40 days under siege at Con Thien. Of the five platoon sergeants I served with in Nam, Gunny Hopkins is the one who always comes to mind first.
One of the most unforgettable characters I met was Bert Trevail. He was a 24-year old Lance Corporal who had once served in the Canadian Army. He tried college but didn’t adapt well to the confines of academia, so he joined the Marine Corps to go to Vietnam. My first day at Con Thien, I ducked into the tanker bunker to say hello. Trevail stabbed a bayonet into a warm can of beer and offered me a swig. He said, “Welcome to the fightin’ first platoon, sir!” I remember thinking, “All right! I’ve found a home here.” Trevail would challenge anyone, enlisted or officer, to a game of chess. He never lost. I wrote him up for a Bronze Star after we had a tank drive into a 2,000 pound bomb crater in the DMZ during Operation Thor. My platoon was attached to G/2/9 attacking NVA dug into a bunker complex. Ignoring the mortar shells dropping around us, Trevail and another crewman got a tow cable hooked up to the stuck tank, then he stood out in the open to ground guide the other tank out of the crater. We were then able to resume the attack.
There were some other characters I’ll never forget. We had a Lance Corporal Charlie Coggins with us for awhile. He was from Cullowhee (sp?), North Carolina. He lived so far back in the hills that I doubt he owned a pair of shoes until he joined the Marines. Coggins was assigned to Sgt Howard’s tank. One night, unbeknownst to Coggins, the scout-sniper team behind us observed him through their night vision scopes sitting atop the turret playing with “Mr. Happy.” The next morning, some smirking scout snipers were asking who had the 0200 to 0400 watch. Coggins just laughed it off like no big deal.
We had some other unforgettable characters in the platoon. I’ll always remember Cpl. Ken “Piggy” Bores. He was a happy-go-lucky, high energy kid who, by the time I ran into him, had seen too much war. But he kept on putting out 100%, even though he was a short-timer. I recall the day he got wounded and medevaced from Con Thien. I had mixed feelings–glad he was going home alive, but knowing his loss would leave a void of positive energy in the platoon.
I have lots of fond memories of those Marine tankers that I served with in Nam, how they carried out orders even though they might bitch about it, their steadfast courage in the face of danger, and the camaraderie we shared with each other. I was privileged to have known and served with them.