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'Jungle Battery' vets look back 50 years later

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 19. 2018 8:13PM
Gerard "Chick" Beaulieu of Nashua recalls his harrowing service as a staff sergeant in charge of a "Jungle Battery" gun crew in 1968-69. (Kevin Landrigan/Union Leader)

The New Hampshire Sunday News front page on Aug. 31, 1969, marking a dark chapter in the city's history when the bodies of five Manchester guardsmen are brought home from Vietnam to a massive crowd at Grenier Field. (New Hampshire Sunday News archive)

NASHUA - As a 23-year-old New Hampshire National Guardsman stationed in South Vietnam, Gerard "Chick" Beaulieu of Nashua remembered seething when his company commander made his unit get up at 1:30 a.m. and move their makeshift camp five kilometers away.

"At daybreak, Charlie hit the whole place where we had been," Beaulieu said referring to the North Vietnamese enemy. "There were 150 of them at least, we called in artillery right on that site later and when we got over, we recovered 30 or 40 bodies. We all would have been toast."

Beaulieu asked the company commander how he knew something was up.

"He said he had a gut feeling, felt them following us all day and decided it was time for us to keep moving. I told him next time you get one of those gut feelings, let us all know," Beaulieu said.

Today at the Nashua Country Club, Beaulieu and all the other surviving members of Battery B of the 3rd Battalion, 197th Artillery will get together for a reunion of their unit which, after training at Fort Bragg, N.C., shipped out 50 years ago this month for a year's deployment in Vietnam.

Connie Dionne, a Hudson native who now lives in Nashua, was staff sergeant in charge of communications for the battery. He helped lead the effort to try and locate everyone for the celebration. The trail had gone cold on about 40 of them.

"We are finding so many of our members who are gone. When I go and start searching and what pops up is an obituary, it's upsetting even today," Dionne said.

"We were part of a family but many who came back were broken and we lost track of them."

In Vietnam, theirs was a story largely of harrowing survival because this group of 105 guardsmen out of the Nashua armory suffered only one combat fatality, despite unrelenting shelling. Capt. Roland Labonte, the commanding officer, died April 16, 1969, when a mortar shell struck the Jeep Labonte liked to ride in touring the battery.

"We were just lucky," Beaulieu recalled. "I'm not sure all of us realized until later how lucky we were."

Others in the entire battalion of 506 citizen soldiers sent to Vietnam from five different New Hampshire armories that year met a different fate.

Battery A out of Manchester became tragically star-crossed in a way that scarred the state's largest city for years.

On Aug. 26, 1969, days before they were all finally going to head for home, five men on their way to Long Binh hit a 40-pound land mine on Highway 13 known as "Thunder Road."

According to witnesses, the explosion blew the five-ton truck 100 feet into the air.

In this photo taken in 1969, Bishop Ernest J. Primeau of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester blesses the bodies of the five guardsmen from Manchester killed in Vietnam. (New Hampshire Union Leader archive)

Manchester's 'saddest day'

When the men's bodies were returned home to Grenier Field in Manchester, 2,000 mourners turned out to welcome the souls of Richard Raymond, 27; Roger Robichaud, 24; Richard Genest, 24; Guy Blanchette, 22, and Gaetan Beaudoin, 20, several from the same block on Manchester's West Side.

"The truck had gotten stuck off the side of the road. Even today, it aches to even think of what all their families had to go through," Beaulieu said.

Then-Mayor John Mongan called it the "saddest day for Manchester that I can remember."

A bronze plaque commemorating their sacrifice hangs in front of the National Guard Armory building in Manchester.

The entire New Hampshire Battalion became known as the "Jungle Battery," an experimental unit that combined six, 105 mm howitzer cannons held by Guard and regular Army units. These massive guns would often be dropped by helicopter onto hilltop positions that weren't accessible by truck. The men and their guns were surrounded by thick, deep foliage.

"We worked day and night setting up these bunkers from which to fire the guns with an operation that took 48 hours to set up. We'd go 14- to 15-hour shifts then somebody would sleep for two hours and we would switch off," Beaulieu said.

"I filled nearly 10,000 sandbags while I was there. Setting up on top of your bunker, if you took a rocket hit even with three rows of sandbags, I don't know if you were going to make it."

Their mission: Fire these guns in support of Special Forces fighting in the bush, most cut off from other units, surviving only because of this artillery support to protect them if they were detected by the enemy.

"Those guns could put a round into this room from 17 or 18 miles away," Dionne said.

Thus, those shooting these weapons almost never saw the results of their work. They were only told later in radio communication how successful they were.

The cover of a commemorative DVD marking the 50th anniversary of Battery B, 3rd Battalion, 197th Artillery out of the Nashua National Guard Armory, one of five units that deployed 506 citizen soldiers from across the state to South Vietnam. (Kevin Landrigan/Union Leader)

Answering call for help

Dionne said a few years ago at a commemorative event, a Vietnam War veteran searched him out after learning about the unit with which he had served.

"He said, 'Thank you for saving my life.' He was with some unit out in the middle of somewhere, they were calling for help, calling for support and getting none, but someone from Battery B responded," Dionne said.

Beaulieu didn't plan on becoming a staff sergeant in charge of his own gun unit.

"I ran the Enlisted Men's Club and that was a pretty good gig. Then I gave the battery commander a ton of grief one evening and two days later they called me up to fire support for Special Forces," Beaulieu said.

"That was quite a drastic change, I had gotten a little out of shape, needless to say. We were getting hit constantly out there, I drank some bad water, didn't wait for iodine pills, got malaria and went from 185 down to 145 pounds. They were going to ship me to Japan and then all of a sudden the fever broke and soon I was back on the line."

He'll also never forget those shells that went awry one fateful day.

"My gun had killed some friendlies - two Americans and some Vietnamese friendlies by mistake," Beaulieu revealed.

"They shut my gun down when it happened. The next morning, a team came in with a bunch of questions for me, my gunner, fire direction control, everyone. They checked out the weapon, the quadrants targeted, the detections that were called in, everything checked out clean at our end. It was just an awful thing that can happen out there."

Dionne had his own uncomfortable feeling after driving to an all-day communications meeting about 20 miles away from their Phu Loi base camp one day. Then heading back, Dionne thought he might have taken a wrong turn and feared he had lost his way.

"Coming up the road, people coming out of the woods, there are military, cows are in the road, I am not going very fast in a Jeep so I got out my rifle," Dionne said.

"I'm getting concerned, it's starting to get to dusk. Then I come around a bend and the sun is coming on the tree tops. I see the flag on our base.

"I can't tell you what that flag meant; it was home, it was friends, it was safety. That's why when I see anybody damage the flag today, I'm sorry but I can't tell you how upset it makes me feel."

Manchester History Veterans

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